New battery chemistry rumoured for Chinese Model 3 — a cobalt killer?

Posted
4 March 2020


Tesla is in talks with Chinese battery-maker CATL to use lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries in their Shanghai-made EVs,
Reuters reports. But what is LFP? Are we looking at a cobalt free, affordable future for EV batteries?

Lithium iron phosphate isn’t new on the battery scene. LFP is sold as a lead-acid alternative for combustion car starter batteries for years. They’ve failed to attract attention for EVs in this time due to their comparatively low energy density against other li-ion chemistries. Battery University lists the following pros & cons:

“The key benefits [of LFP] are high current rating and long cycle life, besides good thermal stability, enhanced safety and tolerance if abused. […] As a trade-off, its lower nominal voltage of 3.2V/cell reduces the specific energy below that of cobalt-blended lithium-ion.”

That absence of cobalt has many commentators interested in Reuters’ report. 

The C word

Cobalt has been a stain on the face of EVs for years. Sourced primarily from the notoriously unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo, this rare metal sells for over $30,000 USD/tonne and has been consistently associated with slave-like child exploitation, unsafe labour practises, and funding violent groups.

A wall of RAW cobalt — picture by ALEX

EV manufacturers know this, and they’ve been working furiously to cut cobalt out of their batteries as much as possible. But these reductions can only go so far when the number of EVs produced continues to rise.

The LFP chemistry is among the first serious contenders to remove it entirely from EV batteries. If it works, this is a massive win for reducing battery costs and cutting this toxic supply chain out of the EV industry.

An undisclosed source reportedly told Reuters that LFP is cheaper than Tesla’s current chemistry by a “double digit percent”. Benchmark Mineral Intelligence has estimated that the figure is around 25%.

But of course it’s not that simple.

Not a space-saver

There’s a reason LFP hasn’t made its way to EV batteries so far. It can’t compete with cobalt-reliant alternatives on one of the most crucial factors: energy density. The last decade has seen the EV industry explode with new models, and range is always at the top of the list of talking points for each.

We haven’t got any real-world data on the efficacy of LFP in EV batteries, but it is understood to be consistently lower than NCA or NMC used today. The same volume delivers less power at a greater weight; significant cost savings will be necessary to make it viable.

Cost-cutting potential

Thankfully EVs — particularly from Tesla — are approaching the kind of range that can afford to be lowered. The Model 3 ranges between 460 and 560 km of NEDC range (a generous estimate). This would leave them with 368-448 km with a 20% reduction. Even with a massive 50% drop they’d still deliver 230-280 km. Certainly liveable for many buyers — let’s not forget that some still-to-be-released EVs will sell with less than that — especially if that reduction comes with a sizeable discount. 

There’s also the point that this shift is rumoured to be for Chinese-made Model 3s specifically; another source of savings vs. the American-made cars being sold today. 

The reports so far are a long way from official, but we do know that Tesla signed with CATL earlier this month. They join Korean LG Chem and Japanese Panasonic as Tesla’s first Chinese battery supplier. Even without LFP confirmed, this is a likely cost-cutter for their Shanghai plant.

Answers?

Details are thin on the ground with both Tesla and CATL staying silent so far. We’re hoping to hear more on LFP and the post-cobalt battery at Tesla’s battery day expected in April.

Here’s hoping that LFP is only the tip of the iceberg.

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Let us know: does LFP have a future in EV batteries? Check out more from the JET Charge blog with weekly updates.