Demand for batteries has increased exponentially over the past decade as electric cars become more and more popular and the energy industry works to develop methods for storing electricity. While electric vehicles are becoming cheaper and technology is improving at incredible rates, we cannot ignore the fact that we still rely on finite resources to create the lithium batteries that are currently used in virtually all electric vehicles. One such natural resources is the heavy metal, cobalt.
Cobalt was traditionally mined as a by-product of copper or nickel and, for years, was considered to be worthless. However, cobalt is now a vital part of lithium battery technology and demand is rapidly outstripping supply. As such, the price of cobalt is now over $30,000 per tonne. Moreover, it is not just the financial cost which is a cause for concern. Around 60% of the world’s cobalt is mined in The Democratic Republic of Congo, where workers conditions are far from suitable and many mines have been linked to child labour and regular worker deaths. Studies suggest that, if we cannot move beyond cobalt for our batteries, it would require extensive exploration into our oceans. This draws a distinct juxtaposition with the inherent purpose of electric vehicles to achieve a more sustainable future.
However, this week we have been given a glimmer of hope from a familiar source. US car manufacturer, Tesla, have been given the go ahead to manufacture electric vehicles in China which are powered by LFP batteries. Tesla have been working with battery manufacturer, CATL, to develop entirely cobalt-free batteries. Cobalt currently makes up less than 3% of materials in the batteries for Tesla cars globally and Elon Musk has regularly voiced his desire to use zero cobalt in the ‘next gen’ of vehicles.
This could have a major impact on the electric vehicle market, particularly for the consumer. LFP (lithium iron phosphate) batteries are lower cost, safer and less likely to overheat. This could mean that the price of electric vehicles will decrease, possibly in-line with traditionally fuelled vehicles. Nevertheless, cautious optimism is required as the lower energy density of LFP batteries makes them larger than their cobalt counterparts, one reason why they are more common in electric buses and trucks. That said, with Tesla rolling out LFP batteries in its Model 3 in China, it seems to suggest that performance is of a sufficient level to be practical in domestic cars.
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