A report from German business newspaper Wirtschaftswoche has determined that Tesla’s batteries for the Model 3 have over four times less cobalt compared to those used by Volkswagen today, highlighting the long road ahead for traditional auto as it starts its shift towards electric vehicles.
Frank Blome, Head of the Center of Excellence for Battery Cells at Volkswagen, noted to the publication that the batteries for the Volkswagen I.D.3 (a car formerly dubbed the ID Neo) contain 12-14% cobalt. In comparison, Tesla has succeeded in reducing the cobalt content of the Model 3’s batteries to just 2.8% as of last year. Tesla has continued its battery research since then, hinting at even lower cobalt levels in the present iterations of its electric sedan.
Cobalt is one of the most controversial components of electric car batteries, partly due to the harrowing working conditions in some cobalt mines. This issue has caught the attention of veteran carmakers like BMW, which recently announced that it would not be purchasing any cobalt from the Republic of Congo, which holds some of the most scandalous cobalt mines in the world due to their use of child labor. The Volkswagen Group, for its part, has opted to release a set of strict guidelines for its suppliers, pledging to use only products that have a “clean” origin.
While the space between the cobalt content of Tesla and Volkswagen’s batteries remains prominent, Blome notes that the German carmaker is nonetheless pursuing improvements to its batteries, adding that the company’s next-generation cells are expected to have only half the cobalt content of its current batteries. “The prototype has a lower cobalt content. Our previous tests show that our quality standards are still met,” he said.
Tesla’s mastery in electric car batteries is among the company’s strongest advantages in the market. Having started its work on batteries for over a decade, Tesla is literally years ahead of the competition. A study from advisory firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence last year concluded that from the early days of the Model S to the Model 3, Tesla was able to reduce its cobalt consumption by an average of 59% per vehicle.
Elon Musk himself has noted that Tesla is aiming to reach a point where its batteries use almost no cobalt. The company explained this in its Q1 2018 Update Letter, where it highlighted the high energy density of the Model 3’s battery cells. “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.