|A model poses with Samsung SDI's electric car batteries at the 2018 North American International Auto Show, or Detroit Motor Show, in January. / Courtesy of Samsund SDI|
By Kang Seung-woo
Samsung SDI is exploring ways to manufacture low-cobalt batteries or even cobalt-less batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) amid surging prices for the silver-blue metal.
Cobalt, a critical ingredient of the lithium-ion batteries used to power electric cars, saw its price skyrocket by 235 percent last year -- from $34,600 (37.5 million won) per ton to $81,360 per ton -- due to the Democratic Republic of Congo government's tax hike on the metal.
As the Central African country, which holds 60 percent of the world's cobalt resources, once again attempts to raise taxes on it, the Seoul-based company is gearing up for a possible price rise. Worse, the Congo is currently politically unstable -- something that may further undermine the situation.
The Korean battery maker is tweaking the recipe for lithium-ion batteries to reduce the amount of cobalt needed.
Currently, Samsung employs nickel-cobalt-manganese and nickel-cobalt-aluminum technologies for EV batteries, both of which are seen as favorites for their efficiency and easy manufacturing.
According to Samsung, it has raised the proportion of nickel in both batteries to above 90 percent, with that of cobalt at 5 percent. The firm is now moving to take out cobalt from both technologies.
"We have set our sights on drastically reducing the amount of cobalt," a senior Samsung official said.
The company is also considering recycling worn-out lithium batteries, which means pulling out cobalt and other key components, as it is likely to help expand the supply chain and the business itself is considered promising.
The recycling business is already gaining traction globally.
"Nearly 15 percent of U.S. cobalt consumption already comes from scrap recycling," Suba Arunkumar, consultancy Frost & Sullivan's research manager, told Reuters.
To this end, Samsung is expected to invest in domestic and global recycling companies and sign long-term supply contracts.
"Talks with local and foreign firms on the issue are underway and we will come up with tangible results," the Samsung official said.
Samsung SDI CEO Jun Young-hyun has already expressed the need for a long-term strategy for dealing with the rising price for cobalt.
"To grow the battery business, we are required to reduce a number of variables," Jun said. "Securing differentiated technologies and stable supply chains will pave the way for us to boost our competitiveness."
Also, more countries such as Canada and Australia are emerging as new sources for cobalt, raising expectations that heavy dependency on the Congo for the metal could decrease.