Tesla's Battery Tweaks Won't Solve World's Cobalt Conundrum

(Bloomberg) -- Cobalt bulls, keep calm. Despite what Tesla Inc.’s Elon Musk says, there may be no escaping a coming supply crunch as the auto industry hurtles into the era of electric vehicles.

Tesla’s dwindling reliance on cobalt was one of the topics that Musk did want to discuss in an otherwise awkward earnings call with analysts on Thursday. The firm has slashed the highly expensive metal in its batteries and wants to go further. Musk’s crunch quote for enthusiasts: “We think we can get the cobalt to almost nothing.”

Tesla's Battery Tweaks Won't Solve World's Cobalt Conundrum

Where Tesla leads, others follow, as they say. But, Musk’s views don’t change the wider outlook for a tight market for years to come, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. The surge in electric vehicle output will be “far more significant than the reduction of cobalt intensity, which is close to its limit,” the consultancy’s London-based Managing Director Simon Moores says in an email.

Tesla's Battery Tweaks Won't Solve World's Cobalt Conundrum

To summarize Moores’ other points:

  • Tesla has always used a battery containing much less cobalt than the form dominating the rest of the EV industry
  • Tesla, and others, have been reducing cobalt usage for a long time, predating the recent price spike
  • Tesla still consumes about 4.5 kilograms of cobalt per vehicle on average, according to Benchmark estimates, and there’s little room for reduction left
  • The rest of the industry is also moving toward batteries that reduce cobalt usage, but this will only have a material impact from 2022 onward
  • Within 10 years, there’s little prospect of cobalt-bearing batteries being usurped by other technologies

“More cobalt will be needed and the reliance on Democratic Republic of Congo as the primary supplier will increase,” says Moores. “The cobalt conundrum continues.”

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