Posted on May 11, 2018 by Charles Morris
Scare stories about an impending shortage of lithium are nonsense, as Elon Musk and other EV experts have explained time and again. Li is abundant, highly recyclable, and batteries don’t require very much of it anyway. However, there is another ingredient of EV batteries that gives real cause for concern: cobalt.
Above: A look at Tesla's 18650 lithium-ion battery cells used in Model S and Model X (Image: Charged)
The problem with cobalt isn’t that there’s any danger of a shortage, although prices have soared to their highest level in a decade. The real objection to the metallic element, and the reason that battery makers are trying to reduce their use of it, is that half the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a war-torn land in which child labor is common.
Above: The Economist reports on electric vehicles, batteries, and concerns surrounding cobalt mined in the DRC (Youtube: The Economist)
Tesla said in its recent letter to shareholders that it has slashed its use of cobalt in the Model 3’s battery cells, while raising nickel content, and that its latest batteries already require less cobalt than other battery-makers’ products. On a conference call with analysts, Musk said, “We think we can get cobalt to almost nothing.”
Replacing cobalt with nickel has performance advantages as well as social ones. Tesla has been working to kick its cobalt habit “for literally several years now, and this has been extremely helpful in the overall cost per kilowatt hour, especially with recent commodity price movements,” said CTO JB Straubel.
Above: Tesla's Model S (Image: PluginCars)
Tesla claims in its recent shareholder letter that its battery cells offer the highest energy density of any on the market. “We have achieved this by significantly reducing cobalt content per battery pack while increasing nickel content and still maintaining superior thermal stability.”