Post-Cobalt EV Techno-Optimism

In the early days of the net zero transition, there was stubborn opposition to electrification from environmentalists. The solution, the argument went, had to be a more profound shift in consciousness, away from endless economic growth and consumption, rather “simply” moving to a different kind of economy.

But as renewable energy and battery technology reach ever greater heights, this view is looking unduly pessimistic. As it slowly passes into the rear-view mirror, the fossil fuel era looks not so much like period of anomalous cheap energy – which underwrote all that consumption and GDP growth – but more like an ever-more decrepit and inefficient technological base that we ended up shackled to because of the industry’s political clout.

Ethical concerns over cobalt and nickel in high-performance batteries are a case in point.

In the early days of electric vehicles (EVs), cobalt and nickel were essential to giving batteries enough juice to make the vehicles viable. This notoriously led mining companies into the anarchic Congolese jungle, and more recently has them exploring mining the sea floor.

Yet over the long run, the use of these minerals at mass scale may fade into the background.

The longest-range and highest-powered electric cars still use these minerals in their batteries. However, the everyman’s mass-produced EV most likely will not. For instance, Tesla’s two-wheel drive Model Y vehicles, which cost around $60,000 in Australia, do not contain cobalt.

Lithium salt on the Chile-Bolivia border (courtesy @alschim via Unsplash).

Instead, mid-range and short-range EVs have moved to what are called lithium ferrophosphate (LFP) batteries. According to the IEA, these are currently 20% cheaper to produce than the alternative NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt) batteries. They also, fortunately, depend mainly on the price of lithium, which is found in abundant quantities in out-of-the-way places like the deserts of Australia and Chile.

At present, China makes practically 100% of all LFP batteries, and a majority of EVs inside China operate with LFP batteries.

This also means that, on current trends at least, the future of clean batteries depends on developments within China. In recent years, for instance, a price war between major Chinese manufacturers has caused a substantial drop in the cost of LFP batteries.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported anonymous sources claiming that Tesla plans to produce a $25,000 compact EV from mid-2025. According to reports, this will also be the base vehicle for the planned robo-taxis. 

On present trends, then, this utopian technology could be manufactured from lithium and iron sourced from arid regions of Australia, and powered by the sun and the wind.

Thumbnail image courtesy of @markusspiske via Unsplash.

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