Tesla's Evolving Cobalt Nightmare

| About: Tesla, Inc. (TSLA)
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Long-range electric vehicles cannot be produced at relevant scale unless automakers have ready access to plentiful supplies of cheap high energy lithium-ion batteries.

All high energy lithium-ion batteries use more cobalt in their formulations than lithium.

While new lithium resources can be developed if prices are high enough, 94% of the world's cobalt is produced as a by-product of copper and nickel mining.

Without sustained increases in copper and nickel demand, the battery industry will not be able to obtain the cobalt it needs at anything approaching a reasonable price.

Without a miner miracle (pun intended), Tesla Motors' EV dream will soon become a cobalt nightmare.

Over the last 10 years, we've been deluged with news stories and investment analyses extolling the virtues of electric vehicles, or EVs, powered by high energy lithium-ion batteries. The stories pontificate on theoretical environmental benefits and speculate on how EVs could forever change the world's energy landscape. While the occasional realist questions the availability of enough lithium to satisfy soaring battery industry demand, everybody overlooks or ignores the more critical mineral constraint - cobalt.

It's a gargantuan challenge. A veritable Gigarisk!

This graph from BatteryUniversity summarizes the typical specific energies for nine different battery chemistries.

The six lithium-ion chemistries (orange columns) use varying amounts of lithium metal in their cathode and electrolyte formulations. While there is no single "right" value, a lithium-ion battery with perfect electrochemical efficiency would need 80 grams of lithium per kWh of capacity. Since perfection doesn't exist in the real world, the industry average is closer to 160 g/kWh.

According to Avicenne Energy, the lithium-ion battery industry used 118,000 metric tons of active cathode material batteries in 2014, which works out to an average of 2.4 kg/kWh. According to BatteryUniversity, LCO, NMC and NCA, the lithium-ion chemistries with the highest energy densities, all use cobalt in their cathodes. For LCO, cobalt represents 60% of cathode mass, about 1.44 kg/kWh. For NMC, cobalt represents about 15% of cathode mass, about 0.36 kg/kWh. For NCA, cobalt represents 9% of cathode mass, about 0.22 kg/kWh.

Avicenne expects global battery production to climb to about 135 GWh per year by 2025. Since Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), LG Chem (OTC:LGCEY), Foxconn, BYD (OTCPK:BYDDY) and Boston Power are all building new battery factories that will boost manufacturing capacity to over 150 GWh by 2020, Avicenne's forecast is probably conservative. For purposes of this article, however, I think conservative is best.

Supply and Demand for Lithium and Cobalt. My first table summarizes the (1) current annual global production (in metric tons) of lithium and cobalt, (2) estimated tonnage of each metal embodied in finished cells sold by battery industry in 2015, and (3) estimated tonnage of each metal that will be embodied in finished cells sold by the battery industry in 2020 and 2025 if battery demand grows at the modest rates forecast by Avicenne.

According to the USGS, the battery industry accounted for 35% of global lithium demand in 2015, or roughly 11,375 tonnes of refined metal purchases for 9,760 tonnes of finished product metal content. According to the Cobalt Development Institute, or CDI, the battery industry accounted for 41% of global cobalt demand in 2015, or roughly 40,600 tonnes of refined metal purchases for 35,200 tonnes of finished product metal content. While raw material scrap and shrinkage rates of 15% may strike some as high, they're actually pretty reasonable when one considers the complexity of converting refined metal feedstocks into finished battery products.

When I look at these numbers, I'm convinced that global production of lithium and cobalt must ramp very rapidly over the next few years if the battery industry wants to avoid insurmountable supply chain challenges. Unfortunately, both lithium and cobalt either co-products or minor by-products of other minerals and increased demand for lithium and cobalt may not be enough to move the needle for mining companies.

Lithium Production Dynamics. Lithium is an odd "minor metal" and current global production is only 32,500 tonnes of metal content per year, or about 172,500 tonnes of lithium carbonate. According to the USGS, lithium is used in batteries, 35%; ceramics and glass, 32%; lubricating greases, 9%; air treatment and continuous casting mold flux powders, 5% each; polymer production, 4%; primary aluminum production, 1%; and other uses, 9%.

According to SQM (NYSE:SQM), the world's largest lithium producer:

"Salar brines are located in the nucleus of the Salar de Atacama. They contain the greatest lithium and potassium concentrations ever known, in addition to considerable sulphate and boron concentrations. From this natural resource lithium carbonate, potassium chloride, potassium sulphate, boric acid and magnesium chloride are produced."

In its Q2-16 financial report, SQM disclosed that:

  • Operations on the Atacama Saltpeter Deposit produced potassium chloride, lithium chloride, boric acid and potassium sulfate; (Note 26.8)
  • Operations in the Salar del Carmen produced lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide; (Note 26.8) and
  • Operations in the Salar de Atacama generated 42.5% of its total comprehensive income, including the income from its potassium and lithium product lines (Note 19.3).

SQM also provided the following disclosure of its comprehensive income classified by product segments for the six-month periods ended June 30, 2015 and 2016. (Note 26.3)

Lithium production is clearly SQM's most profitable segment, but operations in the Salar de Atacama would not make sense without the potassium, plant nutrients and other minerals that SQM produces from the Salar. That means any decision to increase lithium production will depend on stable and sustained global markets for the co-products because SQM can't produce more lithium without also producing more co-products. If increased supply forces co-product prices down, the game may not be worth the candle.

I don't know enough about SQM's operations to understand the interplay between lithium and its other products, but I do find it fascinating that revenues were flat from 2015 to 2016 and total gross profit fell by roughly 10% despite the fact that lithium revenues doubled and lithium gross profits increased by 135%.

If SQM will have to grapple with co-product market strength issues in any decision to expand lithium production from the Salar de Atacama, I have to believe other companies that produce the overwhelming bulk of the world's lithium from brines will face similar issues.

At present, the battery industry uses 35 percent of global lithium production. Over the next 10 years, that percentage will increase to about 78 percent unless additional resources are brought into production. Given the usefulness of lithium in other industries, I have a hard time accepting the suggestion that the battery industry can lock down 78 percent of the available supply and do so at attractive prices.

In my view, lithium production dynamics provide a meaningful window of opportunity for junior miners that can bring new lithium projects online quickly. But investors who are considering the lithium space must understand that (a) lithium is not and never will be "the new gasoline," (b) mining projects always take longer and cost more than anyone expects, and (c) extreme caution and careful skeptical analysis are essential.

Cobalt Production Dynamics. According to the Cobalt Development Institute, an incredible 94% of global cobalt supplies come from nickel and copper mines that produce cobalt as a by-product. That means only 6% of global cobalt supplies come from mines that might be able to increase production in response to growing demand from the battery industry.

Every year, the world's nickel miners sell $14.58 billion of nickel and $1.05 billion of cobalt, which means cobalt revenue represents 6.7% of their total revenue. It's even worse with copper miners who sell $68.4 billion of copper and $0.92 billion of cobalt, which means cobalt revenue represents 1.3% of their total revenue.

Expecting the supply side of the cobalt market to respond to the needs of the battery industry is like expecting a cropped tail to wag a Rottweiler.

While global production of refined cobalt surged from 52,400 tons in 2005 to 99,000 tons in 2015, the bulk of the increase was attributable to new capacity from African copper mines. In addition to thorny regulatory issues for companies that buy metals from African miners, metal production from African mines is not necessarily reliable. In 2015, Glencore (OTCPK:GLCNF) produced 421,900 tons of copper and 19,400 tons of cobalt from its Katanga, Mutanda and Mopani mines in Africa. In September of last year, Glencore announced the closure of Katanga and Mopani for 18 months as part of a debt reduction and modernization plan. Those closures will temporarily cut cobalt production capacity by several thousand tons.

According to the Cobalt Development Institute, the battery industry uses 41% of global cobalt supplies. Over the next 10 years, that percentage will increase to about 65% unless new cobalt resources are brought into production. While there is limited competition in the global markets for lithium, cobalt is one of the most useful metals going. Critical non-battery uses include:

  • Superalloys for combustion turbine engines (16%)
  • Hardened high-speed steel for machine tooling (7%);
  • Hardened carbides and diamond tooling (10%);
  • Petroleum desulfuring catalysts (7%);
  • Pigments (6%);
  • Magnets (5%); and
  • Others (8%).

The bottom line is that the cobalt supply chain is entirely dependent on global demand for nickel and copper. To make matters worse, cobalt demand is tremendously inflexible because of (1) the critical nature of alternative uses, and (2) the lower price sensitivity of competitive users. While new primary cobalt mines may come online, exploration, permitting and development for a new metal mine typically involves a decade of work and billions of dollars.

In my view, the battery industry is on the verge of a very unpleasant confrontation with the inescapable realities of the mining industry. The supply side of the cobalt equation is entirely dependent on global demand for nickel and copper. The demand side of the cobalt equation includes a rich variety of competitive manufacturers that need cobalt for products the world considers essential.

Any time rapidly increasing demand crosses swords with inflexible supply, the outcome is substantially higher prices. Since I first wrote about cobalt supply constraints in March of this year, cobalt spot prices have increased by almost 40% as astute investors began to recognize an unavoidable global shortage. Over the next six months, things should get really interesting.

The battery industry itself does have some capacity to free up additional cobalt supplies by phasing out LCO chemistry, which requires 1.44 kg/kWh of cobalt, and reconfiguring LCO plants to manufacture products with NMC or NCA chemistries, which require 0.36 and 0.22 kg/kWh of cobalt, respectively.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall of a meeting where one battery manufacturer tells another, "I want you to stop making LCO batteries so that I can repurpose your supply chain for my business."

BYD and LG Chem currently manufacture LCO batteries and they may be able to repurpose their supply chains to accommodate higher production of low-cobalt batteries. Unless new market entrants like Tesla, Foxconn and Boston Power are quietly reconfiguring their factories to make low-energy LTO, LFP and LMO cells, I see no reasonable possibility that any of them will be able to build a secure cobalt supply chain in the foreseeable future.

Conclusion. In the lithium-ion battery industry, materials costs are 50 to 70 percent of total manufacturing costs, one of the highest ratios on the planet. Prevailing green mythology holds that lithium-ion battery prices will fall dramatically as anticipated production rates soar due to Gigafactories and other vaguely defined "economies of scale." Given the current production dynamics for both lithium and cobalt, increased demand can only lead to higher raw material prices. Since most competitive users of lithium and cobalt are far less sensitive to raw material prices than battery manufacturers, it's a safe bet that they'll protect their supply chains and the battery industry will either have to pay up or do without.

Tesla cannot launch a $35,000 Model 3 without a Gigafactory that's operating at or near its design capacity of 35 GWh per year. That will require about 7,800 tonnes of cobalt per year. Everything I've seen says Tesla doesn't have a cobalt supply chain that can take almost 10% of global cobalt production away from the companies that are presently using the metal.

The bottom line for investors is, "It doesn't matter how big your Gigafactory is if you don't have a rock-solid supply chain for your essential raw materials."

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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