Significance of Nickel in the Lithium-ion Battery Industry

Nickel has long been a mainstay ingredient in batteries since the 1980s, in the form of rechargeable nickel cadmium (NiCd) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries (Yoshino, 2014). Currently, due to the ever-growing demand for high performance batteries, nickel is even being incorporated in the cathodes of the wildly popular Li-ion batteries. Lithium cobalt oxide, or LCO, had been the most commonly used cathode material ever since Sony launched the first rechargeable Li-ion battery in 1991 (Yoshino, 2012). In an effort to increase usage safety, cobalt is partially substituted by nickel and aluminum to create a nickel cobalt aluminum battery (NCA), a battery with better stability and cycling capabilities (M. Li, Lu, Chen, & Amine, 2018). Later on, a nickel-based cathode with even better commercial viability was invented. Nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) cathodes’ commercial success was due to its superior structural stability, offering the high specific power and energy of NCA with even better usage safety (Korthauer, 2018).

As of 2016, nickel-based Li-ion batteries occupy about 39% of the overall battery market in the form of NMC and NCA batteries. Furthermore, it is projected to continue increasing up to around 58% of the market by 2025 ("Nickel Energizing Batteries," 2018). All in all, the popularity of nickel-based Li-ion batteries can be attributed to a few of its advantageous properties. Their higher energy density translates to smaller and lighter batteries that take less space while delivering outstanding performances. At the same time, high cyclability makes for batteries with longer lifetimes which minimizes the need for excessive nickel mining and production. Considering these positive effects on battery performance as well as its current and projected prevalence in batteries, nickel is one of the most important elements in state-of-the-art Li-ion batteries.

High-nickel NMA: Eliminating cobalt from the equation

Cobalt plays a vital part in the Li-ion battery industry. It is often, if not always, a critical component in the cathode. However, due to its scarcity, questionable sourcing history, and toxicity, there has been a growing consensus in the industry to completely eliminate cobalt from the equation (M. Li & Lu, 2020), including a push by Tesla to remove cobalt entirely from the batteries that power their electric vehicles (EV) (Calma, 2020). An example of such effort created by the scientific community is the recent development of high-Ni content LiNi(1-x-y)MnxAlyO2, or NMA, cathode.

Upon comparation to other nickel-based batteries, namely NMC and NCA, a few advantageous properties have been observed (W. Li, Lee, & Manthiram, 2020). NMA has exhibited better thermal stability while operating under a bigger voltage, albeit also exhibiting a slightly lower specific capacity. Furthermore, the high variety of compositions available and the readily applicable stabilization approaches (doping and surface passivation processes) brings relatively easy high-volume manufacture to the table. While still in its early developmental stages, NMA presents itself as a contender to the NMC-NCA-LCO monopoly, which further highlights cobalt’s dwindling significance in the battery industry.

Establishing a strong nickel-based battery economy in Indonesia

There is an expected increase of nickel usage to replace cobalt as a key material in Li-ion batteries, mostly for electric vehicle (EV) battery purposes. On August 8th 2019, President Joko Widodo signed a presidential decree aiming to promote EV use while at the same time accelerating the development of the EV battery industry. Almost exactly a year later on August 14th 2020, the President also announced a national plan to focus on processing ores, especially nickel, in order to further advance the nation’s potential as a key player in the global supply chain of EV batteries while simultaneously establishing a national strategy for energy autonomy (Andriyanto, 2020). In short, the increasing demand of nickel for batteries worldwide driven by the ever-increasing concern for the condition of the environment materializes a real potential to get a head start on setting up a thriving, independent, circular economy based on responsible Li-ion battery manufacture in Indonesia.

Circular economy is defined as a regenerative system in which resource input, waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by closing and narrowing material and energy loops (Geissdoerfer, Savaget, Bocken, & Hultink, 2017). This can be achieved by multiple means such as long-lasting design, maintenance, refurbishment, or the most prevalent, by means of recycling products at the end of their lifetime. Metal recycling, especially in the case of nickel, is not a mere environmental activity, but a profitable economic sector of its own because nickel does not experience a loss of quality when recycled ("Nickel Recycling," 2016).

Nickel recycling as a means to establish a circular EV battery economy brings a few major advantages with it. Provided sufficient recycling is preceded by aggressive collection and takeback of spent Li-ion batteries nationwide, profits in terms of trade, investment, employment, and the environment should be expected (Drabik, 2018). Trade-wise, recycled nickel further strengthens raw material availability for manufacture or export needs. The establishment of a strong EV battery recycling industry with all its amenities attract investors and create jobs that employ thousands for the purpose of battery collection, dismantling, and recycling. Meanwhile, increasing nickel recovery from EV batteries results in a reduced need for primary raw material mining and transport which in turn minimizes the adverse effects of nickel mining towards the environment. In summary, the establishment of a circular EV battery economy backed by ubiquitous nickel recycling will benefit Indonesia and further reinforces its role as a major player in the battery industry.



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Date : 02 December 2020
Written by : NBRI
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