Elon Musk wants cobalt out of his batteries — here’s why that’s a challenge

As electric vehicles become less niche, the batteries powering them need to keep up. Last week, Elon Musk tweeted that batteries for the Tesla Model 3 use less than 3 percent of an expensive chemical called cobalt, and the next generation battery “will use none” of the material that some have called the “blood diamond of batteries.” How soon can that claim come true?

Cobalt is a key component of batteries. It’s also the most expensive material in the battery and mined under conditions that often violate human rights. As a result, scientists and startups are rushing to create a cobalt-free battery.

Musk’s “next-gen” claim is a vague phrase that doesn’t set out a definite timeline, so it’s impossible to know when he’ll deliver — but don’t expect it to be in the next couple of years.

The Verge spoke to Caspar Rawles, an analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence who focuses on the cobalt market and cathodes, about why it’s so challenging to create a cobalt-free battery.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What exactly is cobalt and where is it mined? Is it extremely rare?

When we’re talking about mined cobalt, the raw material supply largely comes from the [Democratic Republic of] Congo. Last year, 66 percent of the world’s cobalt came from the Congo. Congo really has a big stranglehold.

It’s not necessarily as rare as a mineral, though it’s rarer than lithium or graphite or some others. It’s typically produced as a product, meaning it comes out as another material from nickel or copper mining. So, people are concerned because the supply of cobalt is ultimately at the mercy of the larger copper and nickel markets. If those markets are suffering from low prices, and so demand, it becomes harder to invest in cobalt production.

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