Tesla is leading electric car batteries away from cobalt mining industry

Tesla’s improving battery technology could ultimately be a blow to the cobalt mining industry, according to advisory firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

According to BMI, Tesla’s consistent improvement in its battery tech has resulted in a steady decline in the company’s usage of cobalt for its electric cars. Since the days of the original Tesla Roadster and the first-generation Tesla Model S, the electric car maker has managed to reduce its cobalt consumption by an average of 59% per vehicle.

The Tesla Model S, for example, consumed 11 kg of cobalt per car, while the company’s newest offering, the Model 3, only consumes 4.5 kg of cobalt per vehicle.

The evolution of Tesla’s cobalt use over time. [Credit: Benchmark Mineral Intelligence]

Details of Tesla’s cobalt needs were provided by the company on its Q1 2018 update letter and its succeeding earnings call. In Tesla’s update letter, the California-based company stated that the Model 3’s battery cells feature the highest density used in any electric vehicle in the market. 

“Cells used in Model 3 are the highest energy density cells used in any electric vehicle. We have achieved this by significantly reducing cobalt content per battery pack while increasing nickel content and still maintaining superior thermal stability. The cobalt content of our Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminum cathode chemistry 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,” Tesla wrote in its Q1 2018 update letter.

During the earnings call, Musk noted that Tesla would probably be able to get the cobalt used in its electric car batteries to “almost nothing.” Tesla CTO JB Straubel further explained the company’s efforts at reducing cobalt usage.

“Being on a path to reduce cobalt usage, for instance, has been something we’ve been working on for literally several years now. And this has been extremely helpful in the overall cost per kilowatt hour, especially with recent commodity price movements,” Straubel said.

Cobalt is one of the most expensive components of Tesla’s electric car batteries. According to an OilPrice report, cobalt has been trading near decade-highs of over $90,000 per tonne.

Tesla’s competitors in the electric car market, such as rivals from the US, Japan, South Korea, and Germany, are still a few steps behind the Elon Musk-led company in terms of battery technology. Thus, while the cobalt mining industry stands to lose some of its profits from Tesla, the emergence of new electric cars from other automakers with batteries that are not on par with the electric car maker would likely keep the demand for cobalt steady for years to come.

Tesla’s battery tech is among the company’s biggest strengths in the electric car market. During a teardown of the Model 3, Sandy Munro of Munro & Associates noted that Tesla’s batteries are the best in the business. Munro, a staunch critic of the Model 3’s build quality and bodywork design, stated that there is no other carmaker in the industry today that makes batteries on par with Tesla.

Tesla is leading electric car batteries away from cobalt mining industry
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