Scarcely ahead: tech titans and the resource race (part 1) – by Jessica Clarence (The Strategist – April 20, 2018)

In 1980 US President Jimmy Carter established the Carter Doctrine, asserting the right of the United States to protect strategic interests in the Middle East. The doctrine reflected the reality that oil sustained the US (and world) economy, and without it economies would collapse. ‘Energy geopolitics’—competition between states for energy security—reflected this worldwide resource race; a race as relevant today as it was in the 20th century.

Today we’re approaching an era where clean energy technology outstrips fossil fuels. This means that there will again be an energy race—but the essential component will be the humble battery. Western tech companies and their Chinese counterparts are competing, and right now Western tech companies are on their own, while Chinese companies have the full backing of their government.

Batteries are essential to all wireless electronic equipment. There are many battery technologies, but lithium-ion batteries are the most widely used in portable electronics. Raw materials account for up to 39% of a lithium battery’s cost. The hardest to obtain is cobalt, one of 27 ‘critical’ minerals.

Though it comprises only 10–20% of a lithium-ion battery’s materials, cobalt costs six times more than nickel, the primary component. Cobalt is also ‘scarce’, making it a good case study in what tomorrow’s resource race might look like.

Cobalt has always been rare but several factors have made it even more difficult to access. First, it’s being used more and more. Though we may have reached peak smartphone, advances in renewable energy, electric vehicles, robotics and wireless gadgets depend on expected innovations in battery technology.

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