A bitter turf war is looming among electric vehicle (EV) makers over use of cobalt, a metal used in numerous critical components in these cutting-edge cars.
Power disputes over cobalt at Hyundai and Toyota have roiled the EV industry, which has seen several cars and manufacturers hit delays in bringing out models. South Korea-based Hyundai Motor Co. plans to cut cobalt consumption in its electric-vehicle parts by more than 80% by 2022, according to Nikkei, quoting a company executive. That’s because a major cog in the battery that powers its vehicles, which currently uses around 600 kg of cobalt, will be replaced by a nickel-cobalt-manganese (NMC) alloy.
I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest it’s a game-changer. But it’s the bigger picture of this story that tells you the importance of cobalt and how its use in battery cells matters.
Cobalt, a metal sometimes called “nasty metal” because of its tendency to corrode anything it touches, is used extensively in EV parts ranging from the brake pads to passenger air-conditioning systems, as well as the semiconductors that go into the EV brain cells that analyze data and send it to a driver. The metal is also used in engine parts such as the converters that reduce gasoline consumption, among other things.
Can you imagine if you bought an EV and subsequently discovered you couldn’t use all of its parts? There is potential for a catastrophic negative fallout here, which is why automakers are rushing to find alternative sources of cobalt. There are several in-sourcing partnerships to reduce cobalt use, including German automaker BMW, along with Chinese vehicle-maker BYD Auto Co. and U.S. battery maker Saft Group.
Last week, GM initiated the first such partnership between two automakers. The Detroit auto giant and Italy’s Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said they will share their battery-probe and diagnostics technology for vehicles using advanced battery cells in a $68.5 million, 30-month agreement that could grow to $334 million in the future. That technology, which is already being used in several GM models, is aimed at helping automakers track and improve the performance of their batteries.
The rush to reduce reliance on cobalt is the other side of a cost and time challenge for EV makers. Cobalt, which is priced around $50 a kilogram at present, is only expected to go higher, making the use of alternative materials to make this electrode more essential than ever.