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CES 2021

Cheaper Tesla? Panasonic to develop cobalt-free battery

Japanese electronics giant expects to start production in two to three years

Panasonic and Tesla are working to eliminate expensive cobalt from EV batteries, which account for 30% to 40% of the cost of the cars. (Source photos by Itsuro Fujino and EPA/Jiji) 

TOKYO -- Panasonic aims to make cobalt-free batteries available for Tesla's electric vehicles in two to three years, as the Japanese electronics manufacturer tries to keep pace with the U.S. automaker's ambitious mission to bring EVs into the mainstream quickly.

"Two or three years from now, we will be able to introduce a cobalt-free, high energy-density cell," Shawn Watanabe, head of energy technology and manufacturing at Panasonic of Japan, said Wednesday during an online session at CES, the world's biggest consumer electronics and technology expo.

The cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries for EVs keeps their prices high. Batteries, in turn, typically account for 30% to 40% of the cars' cost.

Panasonic is a leading supplier of batteries for EVs, along with China's CATL and South Korea's LG Chem. It has been making batteries for Tesla since 2014. 

Cobalt is used in the cathode of lithium-ion batteries. The cathode used to be made entirely of cobalt. Panasonic has reduced the cobalt content to 5% over the years. But production becomes more difficult as the amount of cobalt used is cut.

"Reducing cobalt makes it harder for us to manufacture, but ultimately does reduce the negative environmental impacts of batteries and reduce the cost," said Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology at Panasonic Energy of North America.

Electric vehicles have become a focus of global efforts to reduce emissions. In 2019, EVs accounted for just 2.6% of global car sales. Tesla, in partnership with Panasonic, is trying to change that.

In September, Tesla founder Elon Musk announced plans to roll out a $25,000 EV in three years. To achieve that goal, Musk said Tesla will make its own batteries and halve their cost.

Panasonic, which jointly operates Tesla's Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada, has struggled to turn the joint venture into a profitable business. That remains a challenge, but the venture is benefiting from a recent global push for EVs. Last June, the two companies signed a three-year pricing deal, and earlier in January, Tesla signed a deal for Panasonic to supply batteries to the automaker from its Japanese plant as well.

Panasonic is stepping up its own effort to cut battery costs, as seen in its recent partnership with Redwood Materials, a recycling startup founded by former Tesla Chief Technical Officer J.B. Straubel. The Nevada-based company recycles scrap from batteries and consumer electronics.

"The materials we use are very valuable. ... We've always recycled," Mikolajczak said, referring to nickel, cobalt, aluminum, copper and other metals used in battery production. Panasonic's goal is to reuse those materials in battery production. "Obviously, our own scrap is not going to supply [all] our massive production, because it's only a very small fraction of what we produce," she said.

Redwood collects battery cells and other scrap from around the U.S.

"It's a steady stream of raw material, and that could become an appreciable part of our supply chain," Mikolajczak said.

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