A new report by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has uncovered powerful and counter-intuitive insights into the future supply and demand of critical metals needed to support the transition to a low emissions future.

Trajectories for metals used in electric vehicles (EVs) may be more complicated than what is currently accepted, according to one scenario modelled using the Physical Stocks and Flows Framework (PSFF) tool.

The report ‘Known Unknowns: the devil in the details of energy metal demand’ looks at three EV battery metals: cobalt, lithium and nickel, under three different EV uptake scenarios.

It is commonly assumed that demand for newly-mined metals like cobalt and nickel will continue to increase for the foreseeable future, as they are essential for high performance lithium-ion batteries used in EVs.

But by accounting for additional factors such as changes in battery chemistry, quicker EV uptake and higher levels of recycling, the PSFF tool suggests that, even within the same scenario, new cobalt demand may have an extremely short demand window before an extended glut, while nickel peaks early then falls back sharply and lithium remains stronger for longer before also trailing off in the out years.

The report also looks at the potential for retiring EV batteries to meet the electricity storage requirements of a renewables-based electricity grid.

CSIRO notes, however, the PSFF is not intended to be used as a prediction tool as there are so many variables and unknowns.

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