Salty, subterranean water could relieve world’s lithium shortage

The next bottleneck in lithium-ion battery supplies isn’t cobalt, even though China has a stranglehold on the market, and it’s not nickel, either, despite nickel prices nearly doubling in the past five months. Cobalt can be partially replaced with nickel, nickel can be partially replaced with manganese, and both can be completely replaced with iron phosphate, which is cheap and plentiful. 

But there’s no substitute for one crucial component of these batteries: Lithium.

Today’s lithium mines can’t hope to meet the skyrocketing demand for the next decade and beyond. Spotting an opportunity, startups like Lilac Solutions and Vulcan Energy Resources have leaped into action with new lithium extraction processes that are more efficient and potentially better for the planet.

The crunch

As automakers have fleshed out their electrification plans, they’ve caused an unprecedented rush for lithium. Over the last six months, lithium prices have gone on an epic bull run.

It started in January, when prices jumped to $37,000 per metric ton from $10,000 a month earlier, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. Then it got worse in February, with spot prices rising to $52,000 per metric ton before rising again to $62,000 in March. Things have stabilized since then, but prices are still five times above the average price from 2016 to 2020.

Large companies of all stripes have been racing to secure supplies. Automakers like Ford and Tesla have signed huge contracts, and battery manufacturers and miners are rushing to secure supplies. Last year, for example, a three-way bidding war broke out for Canadian miner Millennial Lithium, which has large reserves in Argentina, and the winning bid ended up more than 40% higher than the initial offer.

Yet, those deals probably won’t be enough to fulfill the predicted demand for lithium, based on automakers’ current plans. Benchmark Mineral Intelligence is expecting demand to grow to 2.4 million metric tons in 2030 from less than 700,000 metric tons today.

Supply won’t be able to keep up given the current pace of new lithium projects.

“By the end of the decade, where we’re at now with the pipeline, we’re going to see significant deficits starting to grow,” said Daisy Jennings-Gray, a senior price analyst at Benchmark.

Last year, lithium supply fell short of demand by more than 60,000 metric tons. Jennings-Gray’s firm predicts that the deficit will be over 150,000 metric tons by 2030. To meet demand, Benchmark says that $42 billion will need to be invested in the space by the end of this decade.

Without new lithium projects coming online, it’ll likely get worse throughout the 2030s. By 2040, the International Energy Agency expects lithium demand to be 42 times higher than it is today.

“It’s an insane number,” said Jordy M. Lee, a program manager at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. What’s more, it might even be too low.

“We’ve consistently underestimated how much demand for lithium-ion batteries we’re going to have in the coming years,” he said.

As the rise in demand shows no signs of abating, startups have surged into the space, pitching novel techniques to coax the volatile metal out of the earth.

Top three takeaways from Nuro’s session at TC Sessions: Mobility

Jiajun Zhu, co-founder and CEO of autonomous robot company Nuro, joined TechCrunch onstage during TC Sessions: Mobility on Wednesday to discuss how the startup aims to revolutionize commercial autonomous delivery.

The company is most well-known for its cute self-driving delivery vehicles, which operate on roads, not sidewalks, and are purpose-built to carry pizzas and packages rather than people. Nuro recently unveiled its third generation electric delivery robot, the Nuro, which it’s building at a new $40 million manufacturing facility and closed-course test track in southern Nevada.

Nuro, which has raised more than $2.13 billion since its founding in 2016, has locked down a range of commercial partners, like Domino’s, Kroger, FedEx and 7 Eleven, and is operating and testing in multiple states.

TechCrunch managing editor Matt Burns sat down with Zhu to talk about Nuro’s path to commercialization, the opportunities and challenges of AV delivery and where the industry, and Nuro, is headed.

Here are three key takeaways from their discussion.

Zhu hints that LA might be Nuro’s next market

Nuro is currently operating and testing in California, Arizona and Texas, with a focus on Houston and the San Francisco Bay Area as the company’s initial markets, according to Zhu. When asked which markets the startup is targeting next, Zhu said Nuro might make an announcement about that soon, but something tells us Los Angeles might be the nearest target.

“We recently announced that we are also doing data collection and mapping in LA,” said Zhu on Wednesday. “Our focus right now is just trying to make the service really, really good and make our customer happy and super excited in our existing markets.”

Nuro announced that it had begun mapping in LA in April, saying in a Medium post that the company would soon begin autonomous vehicle testing in the region using its fleet of Toyota Prius vehicles.

“Over the next few months, Angelenos can expect to see Nuro’s vehicles on public roads, and later this year, we’ll begin testing autonomous driving in specific neighborhoods throughout LA County,” the company said in the post. “While we are not fully deployed in LA, the Nuro vehicles residents may see are laying the foundation for our autonomous delivery service.”

Don’t get attached to the idea of Nuro as a delivery company

“Nuro is really a robotics company,” said Zhu. “We don’t see Nuro as a delivery company or a self-driving car company. Our mission is to better everyday lives through robotics.”

When Dave Ferguson, Nuro’s president and co-founder, and Zhu founded Nuro, it was with the conviction that within 20 years, robots will be everywhere, helping people to have a better life. Choosing to focus on delivery was less about the feeling that delivery was the most important avenue, and more that it would simply be one of the first.

“We looked at all these different verticals and asked ourselves, which one is going to have the biggest impact on a lot of people?” said Zhu. “We have this unique expertise and competence that we can build something that is better than other companies, potentially. Which product can have that impact in a reasonable timeline, not 10 years from now, but something that we can see and a use for in a reasonable timeline?”

For the time being, the market opportunity for transporting goods across various retail verticals allows for Nuro to be an actual business, not just a science experiment. Zhu said Americans take up to 100 billion trips every year for shopping and running errands. Automating that can potentially be a huge time saver for a lot of people. But Nuro hasn’t ruled out other ways to save people time — Zhu said he’s particularly interested in home robots.

“I really want a robot that can fold my laundry in the future,” he said.

The benefits of partnering with auto OEMs on robots

Nuro has partnered with BYD North America on its newest generation delivery robot, and Zhu said it’s designed for manufacturing.

“It is, we believe, the first vehicle that is automotive quality, that will be mass manufactured,” said Zhu. “It has much bigger cargo space based on all the feedback and input that we learned [from previous iterations].”

As Nuro works on getting its self-driving tech up to speed, being able to manufacture vehicles with the backing of a major automaker is critical to scaling and becoming profitable.

Another benefit is being able to include automotive-grade speed and safety features. The Nuro can drive up to 45 miles per hour, which gives it plenty of geographic coverage but eliminates the need to drive on the freeway. It also has safety features like an airbag in the front of the vehicle, rather than on the inside, so it can protect vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. The Nuro also has active heating and cooling so it can deliver a hot pizza and a cold beer at the same time, said Zhu.

Here’s what’s happening on Day Two of TC Sessions: Mobility 2022

How was your first day at TC Sessions: Mobility 2022? We hope you’re fully caffeinated and ready to roll because day two is packed with groundbreaking tech, opportunities galore and more top-notch programming. Finish your coffee, peruse the event agenda and plan your day.

We took the liberty of highlighting just some of the presentations you won’t want to miss. Enjoy the adventure!

Ready for a road trip? Audi spin-off Holoride’s got your entertainment needs covered — and you don’t have to wait for full autonomy, either. Its in-car VR system turns every vehicle into a moving theme park — and it rolls out in Audi cars as early as this summer. Nils Wollny, Holoride’s co-founder and CEO, will talk about where technologies — like VR, blockchain, NFTs and cryptocurrency — fit in the automotive space.

Buckle up for a fascinating look at automotive cybersecurity. In 2015, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek famously hacked and took control of a Jeep Cherokee. Today the duo — undisputed leaders in the cybersecurity industry — hold top security roles at Cruise, the self-driving company backed by GM. They join us onstage to discuss the ever-changing security risks associated with today’s connected cars — and tomorrow’s robotaxis. 

Don’t miss the moment when Arrival’s prototype finally, well, arrives. Last year the company announced a partnership with Uber in the U.K. The plan? Design and build an affordable, electric vehicle purpose-built for ride-hailing. This is the first public debut of the prototype before the vehicle (here’s hoping) enters production. Arrival president Avinash Rugoobur will talk about the prototype’s design process and other projects either in the pipeline or right around the corner.

A solid pitch is essential if you want to fund your startup dream. Grab your preferred note-taking device and head over to the TechCrunch Mobility pitch-off. Dozens of the industry’s brightest mobility entrepreneurs will bring the heat and pitch to a live audience — and a panel of expert VCs who will then offer invaluable feedback. Watch. Listen. Learn. 

Forget about knights — they’re so sixth century. We’ve got Entrepreneurs of the Roundtable. Well, roundtables. Check out the three we have on tap today.

  • The future of fleets: While vehicle fleets represent a significant opportunity to achieve scale quickly in green mobility, the customer is different from other commercial and industrial customers. Join Doug Davenport, the founder and executive director of ProspectSV, for a discussion about the needs of institutional customers and how to win in this unique market.
  • Sustainable mobility in emerging markets: Optimizing people, planet and profit through technology: Join Damilola Olokesusi, the CEO and co-founder of Shuttlers — a tech-driven transportation startup in the highly congested Lagos and Abuja metropolis — for a discussion on long-term transportation sustainability. The focus? How technology can optimize three key pillars — people, planet and profit — to help raise awareness of, and offer solutions to, the shortcomings of transportation technology in emerging markets.
  • Why you can’t build a new EV in corporate America: Gas-powered cars and motorcycles have been around for more than a hundred years. During that time, auto brands and major corporations have gained a wealth of capital and experience. Talk about an entrenched legacy. But with the major push for electrification, that legacy is a bit of a crutch. Join Richard Meaux, COO of Exro Technologies, to learn and discuss why electrification requires a huge shift in mindset. And that shift has corporate America learning from nimble tech startups working with the latest electrification tech and thinking way beyond “how things have been done.”

That’s day two of TC Sessions: Mobility 2022 in a nutshell. Wait, you don’t have a ticket? No worries — you can still buy a pass for as little as $65. See you there!