Now that The Ford Motor Company has vaulted into the EV media spotlight, it is not letting go. The iconic US automaker wowed everybody with its new all-electric Lightning F-150 pickup truck earlier this week, and now it is clapping back at itself by hooking up with the ambitious EV battery manufacturer SK Innovation. SKI is known for being the first to introduce EV batteries that charge faster, go longer, and cut down on the need for metals with sketchy supply chain stories, thanks to a high nickel content. Yes, nickel.
Cobalt Vs. The EV Battery
The supply of critical materials is a matter of national concern, and even as we speak the US Department of Energy is preparing a report for President Biden on the supply chain risk exposure for high capacity batteries, which of course includes EV batteries.
A typical EV battery consists of the familiar lithium-ion formula, but there are also several other ingredients that are not so familiar to the general public. One of those is cobalt, and that is a matter of concern for policy makers, especially those in the area of national security.
“Cobalt is considered the highest material supply chain risk for electric vehicles (EVs) in the short and medium term,” explains the Energy Department.
“There are economic, security, and societal drivers to reduce Co content. Cobalt is mined as a secondary material from mixed nickel (Ni) and copper ores. This means the supply is not independent of other commodity businesses and introducing new recovery projects is expensive,” the Energy Department piles on, adding that “the United States does not have large reserves for Co, and the extraction and early stage processing is concentrated in a small number of countries outside the United States.”
What’s The Matter With Cobalt EV Batteries?
To pile on further, the Responsible Minerals Initiative notes that “Multiple reports have highlighted concerns over social and environmental impacts of cobalt extraction, including child labor and unsafe working conditions in artisanal cobalt mining.”
Our friends over at Reuters also just took note of a new blockchain-based cobalt source tracing initiative spearheaded by a consortium of miners and the battery material supplier Umicore, with the aim of affirming that the EV battery supply chain is not encumbered by conflict or labor issues.
In another interesting twist, the retired NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, who chairs the firm Bluetech Investments, hooked up with investors from the US as well as Hong Kong and Germany, in a $1 billion, blockchain- based collaborative effort on ethical sourcing with the world’s leading cobalt supplier, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The EV Battery, Now With Little Or No Cobalt…Eventually
Aside from ethical issues, the concern is that the squeeze on the global supply of cobalt will tighten into a death grip when millions of EVs are plying the roads.
While all that is cooking, SK Innovation claims that it is first out of the gate with a new low-cobalt formula for EV batteries.
“The company developed the world’s first NCM-811 battery in 2016 and continued to innovate and to develop the world’s first high-density ‘Nickel 9’ battery (battery that has 90% nickel content) that will be mass produced in the U.S. powering Ford’s F-150 Lightning,” SKI enthuses.
Helping things along will be a six-year cobalt deal SKI inked with the mining firm Glencore, which reportedly includes ethical sourcing standards.
EV battery recycling is another potential pathway for ethical sourcing for cobalt.
Ford Hearts Next-Generation EV Batteries
According to the terms of the new deal with Ford, SKI plans to build a string of factories for its low cobalt EV batteries here in the US under the moniker BlueOvalSK, and Ford could not be tickled more pink about it.
“Through the JV, Ford and SKI will jointly develop and industrialize battery cells at scale that are tailored to deliver optimum performance and value for our Ford and Lincoln customers,” enthused Lisa Drake, who as Ford’s North America chief operating officer joins Ford engineer Linda Zhang and Sunrun CEO Lynn Jurich among the cadre of women who can take credit for scaling up and expanding the EV-plus-rooftop-solar-plus-home-energy-storage movment in the US.
The details have yet to be worked out, but if all goes according to plan SKI will get a big share of the 140 gigawatt hours in battery production Ford plans for its slate of BlueOvalSK factories, in the US, with another 100 GWh in Europe, China, and elsewhere.
Wait, What About Solid State Batteries?
By mid-decade, buyers of Ford’s splashy new all-electric Lightning F-150 pickup truck will be humming along on BlueOvalSK EV batteries, but Ford plans to keep the EV battery ball rolling with a whole ‘nother generation of technology.
If you guessed solid state EV batteries, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Ford doubled down on its commitment to solid state technology when it announced the BlueOvalSK venture with SKI, emphasizing that it “plans to lead the electric vehicle revolution – including by delivering fifth-generation lithium ion batteries as well as preparing for the transition to solid-state batteries, which promise longer range, lower cost and safer EVs for customers.”
Earlier this year Ford put its money where its motor is. The company created a new “global battery center of excellence” dubbed Ford Ion Park, to quicken its hold on the EV battery market.
Further cementing its commitment to solid state EV batteries, just a few weeks ago Ford upped its interest in the EV battery firm Solid Power, in collaboration with BMW.
As previously noted on these pages, Volta has been giving a leg up to solid state EV battery researchers at the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory, and all of this is very interesting considering that everybody was talking about solid state technology just a couple of years ago without doing much of anything about it, and now here we are all of a sudden with Ford and BMW launching themselves full-on into solid state EV batteries.
Some recent breakthroughs in solid state battery R&D seem to have boosted confidence in the technology, and last year the Energy Department got so excited that it chipped in $4.7 million for solid state research going on at the University of Maryland, so stay tuned for more on that.
Meanwhile, that thing about solid state technology costing less is a real thing, which is the main reason why fans of decarbonization are all over it like white on rice. Batteries are to blame for the up-front cost of buying an EV being higher than for comparable gasmobiles. Once that obstacle falls away, the EV floodgates will open.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: New BlueOvalSK EV battery courtesy of Ford.