Cobalt, LFP, Tesla & Elon Musk
Elon Musk and Tesla have been under fire for years due to their usage of Cobalt in their electric batteries. Cobalt mines often depend on child labor operating in a brutal work environment. Many in the media have labeled Cobalt as the 'Blood Diamonds' of technology.
As a champion of a cleaner planet, Elon Musk finds Cobalt to be a serious public relations issue. In fact, Tesla only mentions the word 'Cobalt' twice in their most recent 10-K, despite its prominence in their production.
Elon Musk announced in a tweet in 2018 that Tesla's next generation of cars would rely on cheaper LFP batteries that don't use Cobalt. Furthermore, Tesla has given the green light to produce their Chinese Model 3 with Cobalt-free LFP batteries. LFP battery usage in China has proliferated over the last few years. These batteries are in fact safer than batteries that use Cobalt. The drawback of these Cobalt-free batteries is that possess significantly less electricity density.
With a lower electricity density cars won't be able to travel as far or fast without having to stop for more frequent charges.
This is not an issue in China where the car usage per capita is about 1/4 of the United States. Chinese car consumers tend to use their cars less and for shorter distances. China has a fantastic network of high-speed rail that provide regional transportation needs to their citizens. The United States has an outdated and slow rail network, so US citizens must rely on their cars for trips above 50-100 miles.
Elon Musk & Tesla have a public relations problem, to meet their growing demand in the United States, they will have to continue to rely on Cobalt. Unfortunately, this proves to be a deal with the devil, so to speak. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an estimated 35,000 children working in the Cobalt mines.
“It was a living hell,” - Cobalt Miner Yanick Kalumbu Tshiwengu
How awful are the conditions in these mines?
According to former miner Yanick Kalumbu Tshiwengu, “It was a living hell,” he says. “As children we were exploited and worked in very dangerous situations. We saw things that no child should see. There was a culture of rape and violence. Girls often fell victim to rape, which as children we were powerless to prevent. Sometimes lives were lost for a few francs. No good can ever come from the mines and I’d like to see them all closed so no child has the same experience as me.”
This darker side of the clean energy and green movement is not going away anytime soon. In fact, a shortage is a major concern of Tesla. Tesla CTO JB Straubel once said when asked about Lithium supply, "I worry about Cobalt supply." The Electrochemical Society predicts that worldwide Cobalt resources are likely to be depleted in 60 years.
Elon Musk and Tesla are hoping that innovation will solve the Cobalt issue the way motorized cars solved the horse manure crisis in London in the late 19th century.