18 June 2019

The geopolitics of strategic materials/ How did US managed to depend on China in portable energy sources field

Sergiu Medar

Society’s evolution depends on communication and mobility, which are also depending on portable energy sources. These should be small, compact and have high-power, so that they can ensure consumer’s autonomy at its best and, especially, be rechargeable. Lithium-ion batteries have all these characters. The main materials used for their construction are lithium and cobalt. Their application, which includes the entire mobile phone telephony, the portable military communication equipment and electric cars, has transformed lithium and cobalt into strategic materials.

Image source: Mediafax

During history, there was a series of discoveries that have astonished the entire world: the gun powder, thermic engine, penicillin, microprocessors, the internet and so on. In the last few years, these discoveries’ rate increased so much that nothing is spectacular anymore.

One of last 10 years’ most important discovery, so long-awaited by the electric cars’ market, is the small, yet powerful, battery. The unmanned electric transport development’s rate was demanded by researchers’ accomplishments in batteries’ field, but also by the quality of the materials they used. This is the exact period wherein the entire population became addicted to mobile telephony. Its intensive and extensive use, which became more and more tempting, thanks to the applications that are making everyone else’s life easier and enjoyable, led to a greater energy consume and, hereof, the necessity to produce batteries that could face these new phone energy consume tasks. When creating these new batteries, they have used new technologies and particularly, special materials. The main condition for these new batteries was their rechargeable capacity in the shortest time possible. These batteries are not used only in the civil field, but also the military one.

In 2005, a NATO soldier dislocated in Iraq, was consuming, in a 72 hours mission, for the equipment he was using, a total of 0,5 Kwh energy. Today, with the use of sophisticated equipment, the necessary energy gets doubled. A tactical communication center can only work for 12 hours with a single lithium-ion battery. In case of targets’ laser indication or jamming missions for enemy’s communication center they need strong and small-weight energy sources. With their performances, lithium-ion batteries are perfect for such missions, ensuring energy from 10 to 12 hours missions.

In 2015, a soldier was having 7 types of non-chargeable traditional batteries in his equipment. With these new types of batteries, their weight decreased, their incorporated energy quantity increases and can also be recharged.

If they need to provide high-power energy for a short time, for example for strong microwaves, electromagnetic launchers, lasers or similar devices, these batteries can replace the system-based energy, as used nowadays.

The current situation in energy’s use for mobile equipment refers to lithium-ion batteries. Their use becomes, for now, an industrial standard for unmanned, portable electric energy consumers. The states able to use such batteries in businesses, in military operations areas, transport or the aerospace industry will have a great advantage comparing to their competitors. However, they need a continuous provision flux for these energy sources and also rechargeable logistical capabilities.

Lithium-ion batteries are mainly created following the classic principle according to which negative lithium ions are moving from the lithium anode towards the cathode, generating electric energy, meanwhile during the recharging process are moving from the cathode towards the anode. For such batteries, the cathode is composed of graphite, and the anode of sulphate and cobalt oxides. The electrolyte is actually lithium salt. The strategic materials are lithium and cobalt.

The lithium is used along aluminum and magnesium to create armor plates, alike for aeronautics, bicycles and trains. Lithium carbonate is also used for glass and ceramics.  

The states that have lithium or cobalt resources are becoming economic-strategic interest states, if they use them as mentioned above. A series of analysts in the economic field is comparing nickel and cobalt’s strategic value with oil’s one.

World’s biggest lithium producers are: Australia, 13.000 tons in 2014, Chile, 12.900 tons, China, 5.000 tons and Zimbabwe, 1.000 tons. The first two are the biggest lithium producers and US’s closest allies.

Chile is one of the most developed states in South America, seen also as having world’s smallest corruption rate. Given US’s strategic interests in Chile, based also on lithium import, these countries’ relations are great and Chile is seen as one of US’s closest allies. The relation with Australia is following the same logic.

As for cobalt, the country to have the largest resources in the world is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has, according to some estimations, around 3.500.000 tons. Next is Australia, with 1.200.000 tons and the others that have less than 500.000 tons. DRG can only provide 65.000 processed cobalt per year and 5-6.000 tons from the other 4 states to have the first five positions in the world.

Hereof, DRC is a state to have major strategic interest for the big powers that want to acquire cobalt, given that it also has a greater purity comparing to other sources. This country is famous for its political instability, high-level corruption and businesses difficulties.

A lithium-ion battery needs only 8 grams of cobalt for a smart phone, and 10kg for a vehicle.

Electric vehicles cannot be conceived without lithium-ion batteries. These have evolved a lot. For example, a Tesla S goes 540 km between two charges. Also, the price of a battery decreased from $400/kwh, ten years ago, to $150/kwh in 2016.

China is currently world’s biggest electric cars producer, followed by US, Germany and others. Also, it is known already that the Chinese government has an ambitious program to protect its citizens from pollution, by increasing the electric cars production. In order to support this program, as well as for other strategic value applications, China produces 80% of world’s cobalt oxides and phosphates. It is, also, the biggest lithium-ion batteries producer in the world.

GEM, the Chinese producer of such batteries has signed a contract with Glencore (headquarter in Switzerland), the mining company, which extracts a third of world’s cobalt ore, to acquire one third of its production for the 2018-2020 period.
In order to achieve its geostrategic purposes, as well as the geo-economic ones, China makes great investments in DRC and the entire Africa as well. These do not always have economic reasons, but, most of the times, political value that aims at getting these countries’ governments sympathy. Examples to that end are the infrastructure systems’ construction, hospitals and stadiums.

China makes huge investments for three strategic reasons:

- it wants to become a world leader in electric cars production;

- it wants to reduce its dependency on oil procurement;

- for now, most of US’s army portable communication equipment uses lithium-ion batteries, made in China, hence, the US army depends on China.

This is also the reason why the US Defence Department invests so much in research, to find a material that would allow the full replacement of cobalt cathodes. Until now, their attempts failed as the lithium cathodes batteries have exploded.

Given US’s dependency on lithium-ion batteries, the US Home Affairs Department has included cobalt, at the beginning of 2018, among the 34 critical materials for US’s national security.

Translated by Andreea Soare