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IDTechEx Report Reviews How Nickel Is Replacing Cobalt In Electric Vehicles

IDTechEx Report Reviews How Nickel Is Replacing Cobalt In Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicle powertrains are much more materially diverse than the internal-combustion engine vehicles they replace. As a result, they are putting sudden and unprecedented strain on several raw materials industries.

One of the most crucial materials is Nickel, an essential part of the cathode in the Li-ion batteries enabling electrification. Most automakers utilise Nickel-based batteries for their balance of energy and power density; for example BMW, Hyundai and Renault use variants of the Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC) chemistry, while Tesla uses a Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminium Oxide (NCA) chemistry. China also now favors NMC chemistries, having phased out Lithium-Iron-Phosphate (LFP) chemistries which is its subsidy program.

In 2019, more than 95 percent of new electric passenger cars sold used a variant of either NMC or NCA, as detailed in the IDTechEx report “Materials for Electric Vehicles 2020-2030“. Demand for Nickel is further amplified by the trend towards higher Nickel content in cells, as manufacturers switch to chemistries like NMC 622 or 811 over the previous 111 and 523, to improve energy density further and reduce dependence on Cobalt.

Nickel is the most expensive material in electric vehicle batteries after Cobalt and is also one of the most highly used outside of the battery industry. While Nickel is often not discussed as much as Cobalt or Lithium, sustainable and environmentally conscious supply is becoming more of an issue.

In 2017, the Philippines government suspended nearly half of its Nickel mines, citing environmental concerns. Moreover, Indonesia accounts for the largest supply of Nickel and in 2019 the country banned exports of raw Nickel ore to boost their domestic processing industry. Indonesia also has the most planned developments for increasing Nickel production and is set to dominate the supply chain.

One of the issues is Nickel is typically mined from ores that contain only a very small percentage of useful Nickel, resulting in a large amount of waste material. Recently it has been announced that two Nickel mining companies in Indonesia are planning to use deep-sea disposal for the raw material waste into the Coral Triangle as they ramp up operations. Less than 20 Nickel mines worldwide use deep-sea disposal, but these new facilities would account for millions of tonnes of waste material each year. This method is typically used because it is cheaper than the alternatives of dam storage or converting the raw materials to useful products.

Many automakers are aware of the environmental concerns in Nickel supply and that it can undermine the environmentally friendly message of the electric vehicle. Most, including the likes of PSA, VW and Tesla, have pledged to reduce the environmental impact of their batteries. This becomes challenging as the choice of suppliers that can meet the demands of these large automotive companies are limited. In the future, Nickel producers will have to prove that their practices are environmentally friendly if they want to sell into the European and American markets, where the automotive industry is making this a priority. Elon Musk has been quoted as saying that Tesla would give a “giant contract” to any companies that could mine Nickel “efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way” (Financial Times).

As the electric vehicle market grows with the trend towards higher Nickel chemistries, IDTechEx expects the demand for Nickel from electric vehicle batteries to increase ten-fold by 2030 compared to 2019. This makes the environmentally-conscious supply of Nickel a serious issue going forward for the electric vehicle market.

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IDTechEx: Will Low-Cost Metal Additive Manufacturing Printers Be Successful?

IDTechEx: Will Low-Cost Metal Additive Manufacturing Printers Be Successful?

Metal additive manufacturing has seen many trends over recent years including pushing the (build) envelope and deposition rate to higher levels, broadening the materials portfolio, and expanding into new markets. According to IDTechEx, one trend that cannot be overlooked is the number of product launches for low-cost “desktop” variants; but the question is, will they be successful?

It is well-known for polymer 3D printing that the hobbyist market, which, although popular and great for engagement, is not where the value lies. The majority of the market value is and will be based in industrial applications. Metal additive manufacturing currently services high-value industries, most of the printers sold are powder bed fusion and can cost over $1 million with expensive powder feedstocks. The industry is forecast to have a fall resulting from COVID-19 before rising to significant levels, according to an IDTechEx report, Metal Additive Manufacturing 2020-2030.

The high price-tag for current metal printers has kept it in the realms of high-value industries such as aerospace and defense, and medical. Powder bed fusion processes are gaining traction in other sectors, such as energy, but require time to find the economically viable use-cases. There are a large number of alternative printer processes emerging, including directed energy deposition (DED), metal binder jetting, material jetting, and more. The report highlights all the main players and benchmarks the different processes against each other, allowing the gaps in the market to be observed.

According to IDTechEx, one recent trend is the release of “desktop” or cheap/affordable metal printers. Here we are not talking about systems costing around $0.5 million and targeting small-to-large part production but rather those at ca$100,000 or below. These small printers are designed to make this technology more accessible and ideal for research, prototyping, and small replacement parts.

There are numerous players entering this field with different processes. The bound metal approaches of Markforged and Desktop Metal grab most of the headlines, although there are others extruding pellets (rather than filaments) and Rapidia with a “water bound” approach. Then beyond that, there are players like One Click Metal (a TRUMPF spin-off) making low-cost powder bed fusion machines and the likes of Meltio and InssTek making directed energy deposition units utilizing wire and powder feedstocks, respectively.  Some companies have their whole business model around these low-cost printers whereas others have them as more as a secondary side project, the issue comes with the economics.

To make these printers a success, large annual sales volumes are needed which means a far greater adoption than has previously been observed. The follow-on sales from materials will not be as significant and the “simple” designs will result in less servicing, installation, and training fees. The counterpoints are that there will be software services and a replacement market which could be beneficial with a large installed base.

There are also printer limitations that are quick to be overlooked, IDTechEx notes. For bound metal processes, this includes necessary debinding steps (which brings solvent considerations, cost implications, and part thickness limitations) and consolidation in a sintering furnace (bringing impact on size, time, and cost). The same is true for other processes and although they are not deal-breakers (and there are constant innovations progressing this), it does mean they are not the small, cheap, “plug-and-play” printers initially perceived.

Then there is the important question of what the adoption will be like. This is unchartered territory and although the products are at an attractive price point, and there are good early signs, the market potential has many barriers to be truly realized. The competitive landscape is heating up, the complicated legal history between Markforged and Desktop Metal is well documented and given both have significant funding and valuations there is clear confidence in the potential. It should be noted that both players have other offerings that could prove more lucrative in the longer-term.

Beyond the bound metal printers, Markforged are major players in 3D printing of continuous fiber composites. Desktop Metal also entered this field in late 2019 with their Fiber printer, and there are many more new and established players developing this technology. This includes a wide range of fiber integration, material choices, and design opportunities.


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Electric Cars: The Lifeline Of The Auto Industry

Electric Cars: The Lifeline Of The Auto Industry

In the past two decades, the car market has declined twice: first due to the 2008 economic crisis, and then due to falling sales in China. Most recently, the lockdowns implemented to combat the coronavirus pandemic, causing auto-production plants to close globally and a loss of consumer spending will lead to an unprecedented 23 percent decline in 2020, according to a report “Advanced Electric Cars 2020-2040” by IDTechEx.

In the following decade (2030 – 2040), things will not improve: the global car market will be blindsided by the rise of autonomous vehicles, which greatly reduces the need for private car ownership. Within this scenario, it is electric cars which will remain a beacon of growth, satisfying both the governmental drive to clean air in cities whilst also working more readily with autonomous vehicle technology.

In their simplest form, an electric car consists of an energy storage device powering one electric traction motor, which spins wheels via a transmission. First invented in the 19th century, electric cars ultimately lost the battle to the internal combustion engine, unable to compete with the energy density of gasoline. Over one hundred years later, the Li-ion battery is enabling their meteoric rise as a solution for reducing local emissions and green-house gases.

Once derided as toys, today electric cars with barely 15 years of development offer cutting-edge automotive technology and performance, from sub 2.5 second 0 – 60mph acceleration, to autonomous driving functionality and solar bodywork. Battery-electric vehicles (BEV) are the endgame: zero emissions at point of use and the focus of automotive start-ups (and China). On the other hand, Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) provide a short/mid-term solution, soothing initial fears of range anxiety.

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