Chinese battery breakthrough needn’t worry cobalt price bulls

That’s not cobalt blue. Image from Great Wall Motors.

High energy density, longer-range NCM (nickel-cobalt-manganese) cathodes, together with Tesla’s NCA (nickel-cobalt-aluminum) technology account for over 90% of batteries in passenger EVs. 

Automakers continue to thrift the use of cobalt – by far the priciest raw material – in cathodes. While NCM111 (equal parts nickel, cobalt, magnesium) are found in fewer and fewer models, cobalt is proving a sticky component of cathodes and NCM811 still commands a market share in the single digits. 

Cobalt in cathodes makes batteries last longer, and crucially provides thermal stability. 

Last month, Chinese battery maker Svolt revealed two battery technologies that forego cobalt altogether. Called NMx, the new battery uses nickel-manganese cathode chemistry. 

Coming a couple of months after Tesla broke rank and opted for lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries for its entry-level Model 3 in China, Svolt’s breakthrough seemed to be another harbinger of cobalt’s demise

The company, spun out of Great Wall Motors in 2018, claims the technology achieves the energy density – and therefore longer range of NCM despite the absence of cobalt.  

Coming a couple of months after Tesla broke rank and opted for lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries for its entry-level Model 3 in China, Svolt’s breakthrough seemed to be another harbinger of cobalt’s demise.

Apart from the eye-popping claims of range for NMx batteries (880km for those destined for GWM’s high-end models) Svolt says it can commercialize the technology as soon as July of next year. 

That’s a highly ambitious target, says Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a battery supply chain and price discovery firm:

As the market looked to reduce cobalt in EV cathode technology and move to NCM 811 the path has been anything but smooth. 

The route to commercialisation follows a lengthy qualification process with each automaker. This can be a multiyear process, even for a different blend of existing technology as is the case with NCM 811. 

For SVOLT a lengthier qualification process can be expected as the technology remains commercially unproven. As a new supplier, with an entirely new product, the Tier 2 cell producer will also face a longer qualification process, although this process would likely be shorter for the domestic Chinese market.

Moreover, says Benchmark, western automakers’ attention and capital has largely been, and continues to be, focused on NCM technology.

Price uptick

Benchmark’s cobalt price assessment published Tuesday shows cobalt hydroxide (crystalline form produced at mines containing 20–40% cobalt) prices gaining slightly in May on the back of disruption of material exported from South Africa.

The uptrend is not likely to last, however. As shipments of hydroxide reach China in early-mid June, Benchmark believes oversupply concerns will ease and prices to subside accordingly. 

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