EV Batteries

This “forgotten” battery metal could be the most at risk of a shortage

Battery-grade manganese supply is unlikely to meet rising demand without new projects, according to BloombergNEF.
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Francis Scialabba

· 3 min read

We’re back with yet another battery material that could fall into short supply. This week it’s the often-overlooked manganese.

Manganese is a transition metal—like iron, nickel, and cobalt—used in the cathode of some lithium-ion batteries, such as the nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) cells used in the majority of EVs today.

Currently the vast majority of manganese—more than 90%—goes to the iron and stainless-steel industry while less than 1% is used for batteries, according to Umicore. But a squeeze could be coming on the high-purity supply of manganese sulfate battery makers need. Demand for battery-grade manganese sulfate is expected to exceed supply capacity this year, according to BloombergNEF.

Manganese may be taking a backseat in the battery-materials discussion due to the fact that it is used in smaller quantities than other metals in lithium-ion batteries, primarily as a stabilizer in the cathode.

“Manganese had always been the forgotten metal. There was lack of investment,” Kwasi Ampofo, head of metals and mining at BloombergNEF, told Emerging Tech Brew. “Is the industry ready at the [manganese] sulfate level? The answer is no. If they don’t do something by next year, that is also going to be a chokepoint.”

High-Mn batteries

So far, the first-generation Nissan Leaf has been the only EV on the market using high-manganese cells, but researchers and automakers are starting to look to manganese as a potential alternative to high-cobalt chemistries.

Tesla and Volkswagen have both signaled an interest in moving away from cobalt and nickel in their lithium-ion battery designs and toward manganese, which is safe, stable, and the fifth most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust.

Although this makes manganese a more affordable material than cobalt or nickel, batteries with high-manganese cathodes haven’t provided the same energy density or life cycle as their high-nickel counterparts.

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If automakers can boost performance—by increasing the size of the battery, for example—manganese-rich cells could provide a mid-level pricing tier between low-cost LFP cells and premium nickel-rich chemistries.

Because of its use in the process of making steel, manganese is one of the largest metal markets. The only metals more widely used are aluminum, iron ore, and copper.

“It’s one of the most mature [metals markets] in terms of production,” Ampofo told us. “The cobalt market is about five to six times smaller than the lithium market. The lithium market is about four to five times smaller than the nickel market. And the nickel market is about 10 times smaller than the manganese market.”

As with other battery materials, China controls a large share of the manganese market, producing more than 90% of the battery-grade manganese sulfate today, according to data from the US Geological Survey. But unlike the lithium crunch, it’s the processing capacity—not the mining operations—that needs to catch up to meet battery-industry demand, Ampofo said.

“To produce manganese sulfate, you need to go through a certain chemical process, and this process requires entirely new factories,” he said.

Producing the battery-grade manganese sulfate powder is technically complex and a nascent part of the larger industry. Additionally, due to safety concerns in batteries, materials like manganese need to be produced at the highest purity possible, Ampofo said.

“To build a factory that will guarantee you that level of purity is quite a capital-intensive project,” he said.

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