Panasonic is working on a low-cost and cobalt-free battery, according to fresh reports. It hopes to help Tesla realize its goal of increasing the affordability of its electric vehicles, and one way to do this is a cobalt-free battery.
According to a Nikkei report, Shawn Watanabe, head of energy technology and manufacturing at Panasonic, spoke at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show about this matter. “Two or three years from now, we will be able to introduce a cobalt-free high energy-density cell,” said Watanabe.
The cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries is part of what contributes to the high upfront costs of EVs — with batteries accounting for 30% to 40% of the cars’ cost. Cobalt is used in the cathode of lithium-ion batteries, and the cathode was once entirely made from cobalt in common batteries. Over the years, Panasonic has been reducing the cobalt content. It’s now down to just 5% of the cathode content. However, doing this makes it harder to make more batteries, according to Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology at Panasonic Energy of North America.
It’s important to reduce the need for cobalt especially since it’s pretty expensive but also since it’s often mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), including through child slavery. Tesla and others have moved away from sourcing unethical cobalt from there.
Tesla has been accused of tolerating the death and maiming of young child miners in the DRC by Terry Collingsworth, a human rights attorney. He spoke at Tesla Battery Day back in September 2020 about this. The story behind this is that one of the mines owned by Glencore was hijacked by artisanal minors who use child and slave labor. That mine, the Tilwezembe concession, has been in possession of the artisanal miners for 10 years now. Glencore has been trying to get the DRC to resolve the situation, but so far, the government isn’t really interested.
This is one key reason why it’s a great thing that Panasonic is focusing on moving away from cobalt in its lithium-ion batteries for EVs. Although the claims by Collingworth in the fall are misleading, moving away from the source of the accusations — cobalt itself — will definitely benefit both Tesla and Panasonic.
Nikkei also noted that Panasonic established a recent partnership with Redwood Materials to step up its own effort to cut battery costs. Redwood was founded by J.B. Straubel, who was a Tesla cofounder and its longtime CTO (Chief Technological Officer). “The materials we use are very valuable. … We’ve always recycled,” Mikolajczak said. “Obviously, our own scrap is not going to supply [all] our massive production, because it’s only a very small fraction of what we produce.” she added.
“It’s a steady stream of raw material, and that could become an appreciable part of our supply chain,” Mikolajczak also said.