LONDON (Reuters) - If Elon Musk had his way, there would be no cobalt in any of the batteries powering the next generation of Tesla.
At the very least, “we think we can get the cobalt to almost nothing”, he told analysts on the company’s first quarter results call.
Panasonic, which supplies the batteries for Tesla’s electric cars, is “aiming to achieve zero usage in the near future and development is under way”, according to Kenji Tamura, who is in charge of the Japanese firm’s automotive battery business.
The two companies are leading an industry race to reduce exposure to the metal even before the electric vehicle (EV)revolution truly builds momentum.
It’s not difficult to see why.
The London Metal Exchange price of the battery input has already rocketed from under $30,000 per tonne at the end of 2016 to a current $86,750.
It could go even higher.
Cobalt supply is dominated by Democratic Republic of Congo, presenting a volatile cocktail of political, operational and ethical risk.
And cobalt from Congo is dominated by China, which has locked down supply chains to secure its own fast-growing battery sector.
For relative newcomers, which means much of the European automotive sector, cobalt is the most problematic of all the ingredients in the metallic alchemy of an EV battery pack.
But given cobalt is one of the single most important determinants of a battery’s stability and performance, can the problem be engineered away?
Graphic on LME cobalt price: tmsnrt.rs/2LpswXW
Tesla and Panasonic are leading the EV field when it comes to minimising cobalt usage.
That’s primarily because from inception they took a different chemical road to build batteries with the capacity and stability to power an electric vehicle.
Panasonic’s nickel-cobalt-aluminium (NCA) technology has always used less cobalt than the nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) formula used by just about everyone else.
And the company has had 10 years experience since the 2008 launch of the original Tesla Roadster to work on its battery chemistry.
Benchmark Minerals, a specialist battery research company, estimates that over the last six years Tesla has reduced the average amount of cobalt used in its vehicles by 60 percent from 11 kilograms to 4.5 kilograms per car.
That may have been the easy bit. Eliminating it altogether is going to be much harder, Benchmark Minerals argues.
It’s not going to mean much for everyone else, anyway, given the broader industry adoption of NCM battery chemistry.
NCM battery-makers have already begun reducing the amount of cobalt used but it is very much work in progress.
The original NCM chemistry used a formula of one part nickel, one part cobalt and one part manganese, or 1:1:1 as it is termed in battery industry jargon.
That has already evolved to 5:2:3 (five parts nickel, two cobalt and three manganese) and 6:2:2 compounds.
The holy grail for NCM engineers is to reduce cobalt even further to an 8:1:1 metallic formula.
It is, according to Benchmark Minerals, already being tested at pilot and small-scale plants, particularly in China, but is still years away from full commercial application.
Benchmark Minerals forecasts the 8:1:1 composition will not exceed five percent of total NCM production until after 2020. (“Nickel versus Cobalt: the secret EV battle for the lithium ion battery,” June 1, 2018)
Tesla, in other words, is the outlier in terms of its war on cobalt.
Indeed, Musk boasted in a letter to shareholders that the latest Panasonic battery design means cobalt usage “is already lower than next-generation cathodes that will be made by other cell producers with a nickel-manganese-cobalt ratio of 8:1:1”.
The problem for other automakers is that the EV revolution is now travelling faster than their collective ability to engineer out cobalt in a battery revolution.
Cobalt usage by the sector, even allowing for an accelerated roll-out of 8:1:1 chemistry, will increase to 180,000 tonnes in 2026, or just under double last year’s global production, according to Benchmark Minerals.
It’s a daunting prospect for a supply chain which is so concentrated in Congo, a country that generates a stream of alarming headlines from outbreaks of Ebola to militia attacks on mines.
Most concerning right now for the cobalt supply chain, however, is the stand-off between the government and some of its largest mine operators over a proposed new mining code.
The code scrubs out a previous stability clause, imposes a new windfall profits tax and allows the government to raise royalties on minerals deemed “strategic”.
One particular mineral springs to mind.
Meanwhile, Glencore, the country’s largest single cobalt producer, is locked in its own legal dispute with state miner Gecamines which is trying to dissolve their joint venture.
Glencore’s restart of the Kamoto mine after two years’ refurbishment, including the installation of a super-charged cobalt circuit, drove Congo cobalt production 34 percent higher over the first three months of this year.
The entire EV supply chain is relying on Congo’s ability to keep increasing production at this sort of rate to help match accelerating demand.
But everyone knows it’s a dangerous dependency.
On paper, Congo has the resources to supply the rest of the world with the extra cobalt it’s going to need. The current political reality, by contrast, suggests an elevated risk of supply disruption.
Hence the collective impulse to cut cobalt usage as much as possible as quickly as possible.
Eliminating it altogether doesn’t seem to be possible without sacrificing both safety and performance, both touchstone issues for EV manufacturers.
But the amount of research going into battery sector is already generating new super-low-cobalt chemistries such as Johnson Matthey’s enhanced lithium nickel oxide (eLNO), which it expects to produce commercially in 2020-2021.
And there is no shortage of precedents for extreme prices and scarcity to generate a totally unforeseen technical breakthrough.
It was an accepted fact, for example, that dysprosium couldn’t be engineered out of an electric motor.
Until in the wake of the ferocious rare earths boom and bust cycle at the start of the decade, Honda and Daido Steel did exactly that. The “FREED” minivan doesn’t use any dysprosium at all. While they were at it, they engineered out another “irreplaceable” rare earth, terbium, at the same time.
This electric vehicle revolution has only just begun but if cobalt is going to maintain its current core role for the duration, producers and governments alike should heed Elon Musk’s words.
Right now the EV industry needs cobalt. The more unstable supply becomes, the harder it will fight to eliminate that need.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
Editing by Edmund Blair