Major battery manufacturers like Samsung SDI, LG Chem, and SK Innovation are trying to find ways to work around the shortage of cobalt, a major component of lithium-ion batteries, recent reports indicate. Lithium-ion batteries are used to power modern devices like smartphones and electric vehicles, and manufacturers and analysts point out that the leading cause of reduced cobalt supply is the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The African country is responsible for more than half of the global supply of cobalt, and the conflict reduced the number of minerals that it could export. In addition to the reduced supply, there is also an increased demand for cobalt as more batteries for electric vehicles are produced. The reduced supply and increased demand resulted in a 90 percent jump in cobalt prices, which is now trading at $61,000 per ton.
Concerns regarding the supply and pricing of cobalt forced battery manufacturers to attempt changing the composition of their lithium-ion battery products. Samsung, LG, and SK Innovation are all trying to make batteries with the cathode composition of 80 percent nickel, 10 percent cobalt, and 10 percent manganese. For comparison, a contemporary lithium-ion battery’s cathode is presently 60 percent nickel, 20 percent cobalt, and 20 percent manganese. The change in cathode composition effectively cuts the cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries in half, which brings multiple benefits for both the manufacturer and consumer. For the manufacturers, reduced cobalt consumption could likely result in decreased production costs. On the other hand, the increased proportion of nickel in the cathode may improve the battery life of smartphones and electric vehicles.
Despite the benefits of reduced cobalt consumption, it will still take three to four years before the new batteries are fully developed. In order to reduce the impact of increased prices, battery manufacturers are seeking possible suppliers of cobalt that are willing to sign long-term contracts. Doing so would allow the companies to diversify the list of suppliers while ensuring a stable supply of raw materials. The South Korean government may also try to secure more sources of cobalt through overseas projects, but given the public scrutiny over such initiatives, it might be difficult for the state to start its own projects at this point.