It's become clear that the global transition to clean energy will need a lot of metal. For example, annual demand for battery metals – like lithium and cobalt – is expected to increase by over 450% by 2050. By JERAD FORD and JIM WEST
Conceptually, we know this demand will be met through a mix of new mining, recycled materials and even reuse.
The timing and trade-offs between those different sources of supply is not, however, something traditional forecasts can tell us.
This is because they rely on things like an assumed supply from recycling, but don't reconcile this component against scrap availability, which in turn depends upon the ever-changing technology mix in the broader economy.
Such internally inconsistent forecasts can be misleading – important if you're planning new mines.
Global metal flows are dynamic and complex.
Metals can be locked up for decades in durable consumer goods.
Product lifespans differ and change
Some technologies, like electric vehicle (EV) batteries, may enter second life applications like home energy storage.
Underlying material compositions change as technology evolves. The uptake rates of technologies will differ under different policy settings. And so on.
Painting an accurate picture of the supply and demand that develops from this requires tracking for ALL these individual factors.
That's why CSIRO's Critical Energy Metals mission has been developing a special tool called a Physical Stocks and Flows Framework (PSFF).
This tool is a relatively straightforward – though data intensive – integrated accounting and modelling framework.
It provides a great way for keeping your forecasting assumptions organised, transparent, and consistent.
But the real value comes from being able to see the interactions between seemingly simple individual factors.
This is where complex outcomes and counter-intuitive insights reveal themselves.
Early insights for battery metal supply and demand
Currently our prototype can run supply and demand scenarios for battery metals out to the year 2060. With it, we have explored the EV market to reveal possible demand profiles of key metals – notably lithium, nickel, and cobalt.
Early results reinforce the commonly held view that there is strong demand for these metals. But it is the insights into the timing of mining and recycling opportunities, under subtly different scenarios, that are most novel and revealing. Second life is an example.
A major influence on primary demand (mining) is the service life batteries.
If most EV batteries go on to serve a second life (e.g. home storage) then these metals might be locked up for an additional decade or more.
In this case, mined metal demand may continue nearly unabated.
However, if the reverse is true – for example, Tesla has no plans for second life – then recycled battery metals might start displacing mining growth within the decade.
Technology change changes demand
Another insight is that primary demand for lithium, nickel, and cobalt can diverge quite radically depending on the pace of technology change.
More rapid evolution of battery chemistries, and shifts in market share, mean that the currently similar bright demand outlooks for these metals could decouple rapidly.
Much, much more
The current EV model already includes information on a host of critical metals related to major componentry of these vehicles, even rare earths (for example: Al, Co, Cu, Dy, Fe, Li, Mn, Nd, also P).
We are also extending the model to explore the other important energy transition technologies including solar PV and wind generation technologies.
The framework is expandable to accommodate other technologies as well, such as fuel cells, electrolysers, etc.
Work with us
We want to engage directly with industry partners to build meaningful scenarios using our new model.
We seek industry perspectives on key variables like technology adoption rates, the pace and direction of technological evolution, market pull and recycling trends – to name a few.
Purpose built scenarios that reflect the best estimates of industry partners are crucial to understanding size and timing of investment opportunities.
Let's work together to build insightful, long‑term modelling using our new metals accounting framework.
If you are interested in learning more or collaborating with us, please contact Dr Jerad Ford.