Avoiding a crunch in critical minerals through technology, recycling and global collaboration: Robin Zeng


The increasing demand for critical minerals in the clean energy transition can be met by continuous advances in technology, battery recycling and global collaboration, said Dr. Robin Zeng, chairman and general manager of CATL, when attending the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2024 in Davos, Switzerland. 

During the session “Avoiding a crunch in critical minerals” held on Wednesday, Dr. Zeng said that innovation is the core driver in ensuring a resilient supply chain of critical minerals. As lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries continue to increase market share globally, there will be less demand for critical minerals such as cobalt and nickel. In the meantime, advancing mining and refinery technology helps increase the supply of lithium and alleviate the shortage. “If you think about it, five years ago people were only mining ores containing 1.8 % lithium, and now they can get 0.3 % lithium ores,” Dr. Zeng said. “Improved technology is driving this change.” 

Increasing energy density lies at the heart of battery technology, helping improve material efficiency and therefore reducing the demand for raw materials. Through innovative battery design, state-of-the-art battery technology today is able to deliver a range of 100 km with 12 kWh battery capacity, compared with the industry average of 15 or 16 kWh, which translates into a significant decrease in demand for critical materials for the same range. 

Another way of reducing dependency on critical materials like lithium is finding an alternative at lower cost, such as sodium-ion batteries or cobalt-free cathode materials. In 2021, CATL launched its first generation of sodium-ion batteries, and it is now developing its second-generation sodium-ion batteries, allowing affordable cars with a driving range of 400 to 500 kilometers, according to Zeng. 

Dr. Zeng also stressed the transformative role of battery recycling. Most materials in a battery can be recycled and reused effectively, unlike oil that cannot be recycled. Together with its subsidiary Brunp, CATL has achieved a recovery rate of 99.6% for nickel, cobalt and manganese, and 91% for lithium. 

“The demand for critical minerals might increase by five times in the next 10 years considering the fast growth of the industry.” said Dr. Zeng at the panel. “But at the end of the day, when we achieved 100% electric cars, there will be very tiny amount of new critical materials to be mined.” 

CATL’s goal is to make high-quality energy technology accessible across the globe, helping to achieve international sustainability goals. Dr. Zeng also addressed the importance of collaboration among stakeholders, stressing the need to share technology including recycling technology to fight climate change.