Some innovations disrupt industries. Others disrupt the world. Gunpowder, the internal combustion engine, the microchip, the internet – these are all innovations that changed what it meant for a state to be secure and, therefore, what interests the state must pursue. Many have guessed, but it’s impossible to know what the next revolutionary, world-disrupting technology will be. But we can nevertheless look at how advancements in existing technologies are creating new industries and doing things like modifying states’ military capabilities. As technology progresses, and as costs come down, new applications emerge that can generate demand for inputs that were previously mostly ignored.
One technology that is progressing with global implications is energy storage, specifically electrochemical batteries, which store energy chemically and transform it into electricity via chemical reactions. The increasing energy density of new batteries, greater lifecycles and ability to recharge mean that batteries can be used to power new devices and for longer periods. Lithium-ion batteries, for example, have become the industry standard for consumer electronics of all types and are being adopted by the electric vehicle industry. Better batteries also enable the wider adoption of new types of energy generation, such as wind and solar, by providing a way for round-the-clock use of electricity that is generated only at certain times of the day.
The states with the best batteries will have a comparative advantage in commerce and on the battlefield. Securing supply chains critical to the production of batteries, therefore, will become an increasingly strategic concern for countries in the years to come – much like oil supplies today. And that means ensuring that all inputs of production are available in sufficient quantities to produce enough batteries to meet a state’s strategic needs.
This Deep Dive will investigate the current state of one of the most promising battery types right now, lithium-ion batteries, and how the need for cobalt in those batteries’ production in the coming years is increasing foreign powers’ strategic focus on the country with the most cobalt reserves and greatest production, the Democratic Republic of Congo. China has a sizable advantage right now in the cultivation of links to the DRC’s mines, while the U.S. is gradually turning its attention to the search for alternatives. More broadly, we will lay out a framework for thinking about technological advancement in geopolitical terms: By focusing on critical components and where they are located, we can get a sense for where future zones of competition can emerge and which technologies governments will focus their investment on.
Not Just Your Smartphone Battery
Lithium-ion batteries are being used in more and more ways because they solve a lot of energy storage problems. They can store and discharge more energy per mass than other older batteries like lead-acid or nickel metal hydride, and they have a slower self-discharge rate (i.e., how much of its charge the battery loses on its own without usage). These properties have made lithium-ion batteries ubiquitous in smartphones and other small consumer electronic devices that require frequent charging and are intended to have a relatively long life expectancy.
Lithium-ion batteries are also becoming the standard battery in electric vehicles. Though lithium-ion-powered EVs still cannot quite match the range of gas-powered vehicles, they are getting close – a Tesla Model S with an upgraded battery can travel 335 miles (540 kilometers) on a single charge, among the longest travel ranges for any electric vehicle – even if EVs with the longest mileage are far more expensive than their gas-fueled equivalents. As the EV market pushes demand for lithium-ion batteries higher, their energy density has been increasing while the cost of production has been falling. The University of California, Berkeley estimates that the price for an EV-designed lithium-ion battery in 2016 was about $150 per kilowatt-hour – compared to over $400 a decade ago. And as the cost of lithium-ion batteries falls, they become more competitive with similar batteries and thus become viable alternatives. Advancements that lead to smaller lithium-ion batteries will also increase their potential use cases.
Broader adoption, however, has implications well beyond the world of consumer electronics and electric vehicles and into national defense. In his 2009 book “The Next 100 Years,” GPF founder George Friedman pointed out that as infantry becomes increasingly mechanized and reliant on portable electronic devices, there will develop a growing strategic need to deliver electricity to the battlefield and forward bases. This trend is already developing: In 2004, a typical NATO soldier deployed in Iraq consumed approximately 500 watt-hours during a 72-hour mission. Today, that same dismounted soldier would consume twice as much electricity. Here, too, the effect of innovation in lithium-ion battery technology is being felt. In this case, lithium-ion batteries have three major advantages over existing battery tech used by soldiers in the field. First, they are rechargeable. (In 2015, NATO said dismounted soldiers needed to carry seven different batteries, which weren’t rechargeable and therefore needed to be replaced.) Second, they last longer than traditional lead-acid batteries. And third, they are lighter than other battery types that can deliver the same quantity of energy.
Another immediate application for lithium-ion batteries is enabling longer periods of what’s called “silent watch.” Often soldiers will be stationed for long periods in a vehicle with its engine turned off to keep watch over an area. Silent watch requires vehicles to power sensors and communication suites without the engine running. Lead-acid batteries, which have been standard, provide for only about four hours of silent watch, at which point the outpost must turn its engine on to power the generator, revealing its position. Lithium-ion batteries could extend this time to 12 hours, providing for all-night silent watches.
Reducing the strain on mechanized infantry and enabling longer silent watches may not seem like huge leaps in capabilities, but in war, supply and logistics are everything, and these advantages would reduce the logistical burden and improve forward operating capabilities. Efficient lithium-ion batteries can decrease the need for constant resupply of other types of batteries and of fuel needed for generators, since independent units could use solar and wind systems in conjunction with rechargeable batteries to provide for their electricity needs. Given that fuel often costs more than 10 times its purchase price to deliver safely to forward operating bases, this has meaningful financial benefits. It would also make it easier to station ground forces farther forward for longer periods.
There are other military use cases for more efficient batteries that go beyond minimizing supply constraints – for example, signal targeting, which is when a deployed unit uses a portable electronic system to detect and jam all frequency signaling in a given area by an adversary. The ability to disrupt an enemy’s command and control is a substantial tactical advantage. Signal targeting requires batteries, and if it’s a long mission – say, 10 or more hours – a highly efficient and, preferably, lightweight battery is needed.
Pulsed power supplies are another such use for efficient batteries. These use electricity to power applications like high-powered microwaves, electromagnetic launchers, lasers, railguns and similar devices that require a quick burst of electricity. A study by the University of Texas showed that lithium-ion batteries can make these pulsed power supplies substantially more compact, mobile and efficient. Right now, most pulse powered applications continue to rely on power supplied from the grid, which clearly limits their usefulness on a battlefield.
Democratic Republic of Cobalt
Though lithium-ion batteries are by no means the only new, efficient, rechargeable battery, they are one of the most promising, offering high energy density, minimal recharging memory effect (i.e., reduced longevity over time) and lower unintended discharge rates (lost charge while not in use). Among the category of lithium-ion batteries, one of the preferred types requires cobalt to be used in the cathode. (The cathode is the positively charged side of the battery; the anode is the negatively charged side. As lithium-ions flow from one side, or electrode, to the other, they emit electrons to an external circuit that powers devices.)
The problem with cobalt, however, is where it comes from. The Democratic Republic of Congo – a country not known for its political stability or ease of doing business – holds 50 percent of all cobalt reserves and provides nearly 60 percent of the global supply. From 1996 to 2003, the DRC experienced two extremely bloody civil wars, but the violence never really stopped. The second war – sometimes referred to as the Great African War because many other African countries were pulled into the fighting – is believed to have caused nearly 5.5 million deaths, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.
There are alternatives to producing lithium-ion battery cathodes with cobalt, but each has its drawbacks. For example, Daniel Abraham, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, described how cobalt can be substituted with nickel, which is cheaper. But using nickel increases the risk of a large release of oxygen – a significant fire hazard. Adding aluminum can increase the stability of a nickel cathode, but not without decreasing the cell’s capacity. To balance between these, some batteries use a combination of nickel, cobalt and aluminum, but regardless of the combination, cobalt is still the best solution for making high-capacity, efficient and stable lithium-ion batteries.
Similarly, there’s no good single substitute for the DRC when it comes to cobalt production. Though other countries have cobalt reserves, they are much smaller and more widely scattered. The remaining roughly 40 percent of production is split across several countries, with Russia, Australia, Canada and Cuba ranking as the second- through fifth-largest producers in 2017. But each of these countries produced only between about 4,000 and 5,500 metric tons of cobalt each, compared to the DRC’s nearly 65,000 metric tons.
As cobalt use has grown in consumer electronics, companies like Samsung and Apple have begun seeking out agreements directly with large cobalt miners, which have more oversight than smaller operations, as opposed to purchasing it on the market. This is motivated in part by companies’ desires to distance themselves from the high incidence of child labor used in mining cobalt in the DRC, especially among smaller mining companies.
But the bigger risk for these companies is that the growth in electric vehicle production could take so much cobalt off the market that it becomes difficult to source a key component of their own products. For example, though a smartphone requires only about 8 grams of cobalt, an EV battery requires 10 kilograms – more than 1,000 times as much. Research initiatives have sought to reduce the amount of cobalt needed in lithium-ion batteries, such as the nickel-cobalt-aluminum cathode, but demand for cobalt in the next 10 years is still forecast to increase significantly.
All of this means that, until comparable technologies can be invented to decrease the need for cobalt, the DRC will take on a more strategic role for companies and countries that depend on cobalt-based lithium-ion batteries – which is to say, every major country in the world. This is especially true as the increased production of lithium-ion batteries drives their cost down, thus increasing the number of use cases for them.
The China Factor
As it turns out, though, China currently controls 80 percent of the global cobalt sulfates and oxides market – the refined products needed to produce lithium-ion cathodes. China is also the largest producer of lithium-ion batteries, and Chinese battery makers have cut large deals with cobalt mining companies. Earlier this year, for instance, Chinese battery producer GEM signed a deal with Glencore to purchase one-third of its mined cobalt from 2018 through 2020. Glencore, for its part, is responsible for mining about a third of the world’s annual supply of cobalt.
The DRC is a major recipient of Chinese investment in Africa. In early 2017, China Molybdenum purchased a majority stake in the DRC’s Tenke Fungurume Mine, one of the largest deposits of cobalt and copper in the world, from a U.S.-based company for $3.8 billion. In June, China’s Citic Metal spent $560 million on a 20 percent stake in Ivanhoe Mines, which operates the Kamoa-Kakula copper mine. (Currently, about 98 percent of cobalt is mined as a byproduct of nickel and copper.) China has also invested heavily in the Sicomines copper project, a joint venture between Sinohydro, China Railway Construction Corp. and the Congolese state. The Sicomines project is perhaps the best known of the resources-for-infrastructure deals that China has made on the African continent. In exchange for a guaranteed quantity of copper and cobalt, Beijing has agreed to build transport infrastructure that would allow for easier production and export of those resources, as well as other projects such as hospitals.
There are two reasons China is spending so much money on developing mines in central Africa. The first is economic: China is hoping to become a leader in electric vehicles and, by extension, lithium-ion batteries. This accomplishes several things for China. For one, more clean vehicles work toward Beijing’s goal of reducing pollution, which it has already begun to combat with regulations restricting the number and type of cars on its roads, especially in big cities. Persistent and increasingly toxic pollution has become a political issue in China, and Beijing is aware that reducing pollution at this point would eliminate one more motivation for social unrest. China is also hoping to move up the value chain, and electric vehicles are one product it is focusing heavily on in hopes of becoming a global leader. Developing a comparative advantage – or, if it can corner the cobalt market, an exclusive advantage – would provide China with higher-paying manufacturing jobs, which would help grow its domestic consumer base. In the long run, a robust domestic EV industry could also decrease China’s dependence on imported oil.
The second reason for China’s focus on central African mines is strategic. Because modern military technology requires an increasing supply of dependable, portable electricity, the development of exclusive or near-exclusive control of one commodity required to build that power supply would be no small advantage. This is especially true given that the U.S. imports almost all of its cobalt – approximately 70 percent of all cobalt consumed in the U.S. in 2017 was imported. Economically, this makes sense, since a lot of products with lithium-ion batteries that are sold to U.S. consumers are assembled not in the U.S. but in China. Nevertheless, the demand for cobalt is growing, and the U.S. currently has little direct access to where most of it is being mined or refined. This is why the U.S. Department of the Interior in February designated cobalt, along with 34 other minerals, as critical to the economy and national security of the United States.
In terms of securing more cobalt, however, the charge in the U.S. has mainly been led by companies like Apple and Samsung. Whether the U.S. government becomes more directly involved in the competition – a race against China, where the DRC’s cobalt reserves are the prize – will depend on a few factors: whether stable, cobalt-free batteries are invented and at what cost they can be produced, and how high the price of cobalt goes.
The price will to some extent determine whether there will be more investment in mines outside the DRC. Australia, as an example, has 17 percent of global cobalt reserves but currently produces only less than 8 percent of what the DRC does. Because most cobalt is mined as a byproduct of nickel and copper, the supply of cobalt has hitherto been determined less by its own price than by the price of these two primary metals. Should the price of cobalt go high enough, more mines may open and focus exclusively on cobalt production, which could lead countries like Australia or Russia to produce at greater levels. Still, with as much cobalt reserves as the rest of the world combined, the DRC will remain an invaluable part of the supply.
Being in a position where it is reliant on a large and dependable supply of cobalt, then, may not be a realistic proposition for the United States. Given the national security aspect of energy storage and China’s head start in controlling the cobalt market, the U.S. government in the coming years will need to invest more money in battery technologies that are not reliant on cobalt. Lithium iron phosphate, which does not utilize cobalt in cathodes, is one such example. In 2015, the U.S. Navy awarded an $80 million contract to K2 Energy Solutions to design a battery that would be “capable of powering a large modular capacitor bank for [an] electromagnetic railgun.” The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is also researching ways to successfully and repeatedly recharge zinc batteries, which are widely used but only as single-use batteries.
Advances in technology fundamentally alter how states project power and, therefore, dictate where they must focus to secure their interests. This, in turn, can magnify the geopolitical relevance of places in the world that may not have had as much global influence as before. The Middle East and oil is just one example of this: Saudi Arabia became a focus for countries all over the world after it discovered oil in an age when all countries’ military capacities heavily depended on it.
As the world researches and discovers alternative sources of energy, storing that energy will become critical. Researching and developing alternatives to fossil fuels, delivering electricity to the battlefield and storing electricity produced by distributed generation sources such as wind or solar will become new arenas of technological, economic and military competition between states.