Panasonic Wants to Develop Cobalt-Free Batteries for Electric Cars

Panasonic, which is currently Tesla’s sole supplier of lithium-ion batteries and a partner in the automaker’s battery Gigafactory, plans to develop batteries that don’t use cobalt, according to Reuters. Cobalt is a vital ingredient in current lithium-ion batteries, but cost, a limited supply, and ethical questions related to mining the mineral have left companies searching for an alternative.

“We have already cut down cobalt usage substantially,” Kenji Tamura, head of Panasonic’s automotive battery business, told Reuters during an analysts’ meeting. “We are aiming to achieve zero usage in the near future, and development is underway.”

As automakers commit to building more electric cars, sourcing battery materials is becoming more difficult. Cobalt, which is typically combined with nickel and manganese in electric-car batteries, is relatively scarce, and that’s already driving prices up. The mineral also presents ethical and geopolitical problems.

Most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is known for corruption. Most of the mining is done by so-called “artisan miners” working by hand, and many of those miners are children. Most mining companies working in the Congo are Chinese, as are the refineries that process cobalt. That could allow China to develop a monopoly on the mineral.

These factors give companies plenty of incentive to devise an alternative to cobalt, but it’s unclear what that alternative will be. The need to develop batteries with greater storage capacity and faster charging times has led to dozens of projects researching alternatives to today’s lithium-ion chemistry, but so far no commercially-viable alternative has emerged. U.K. companies have also begun exploring dormant local mines for battery materials.

As the sole battery supplier to Tesla, it’s not surprising that Panasonic is looking for an alternative to cobalt. The company is also in talks with Toyota about a possible battery deal. 

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