Tesla shifting to cheaper batteries tried in China as material prices soar

DETROIT (BLOOMBERG) – Tesla said it’s shifting to cheaper lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries globally, a move away from the chemistry used to power most electric cars as prices for key materials soar.

The switch to LFP batteries will apply to Tesla’s standard-range vehicles, the company said in its third-quarter earnings release, confirming a strategy flagged last year to use the budget components to deliver lower-cost models.

Most of the auto industry relies on nickel and cobalt in lithium-ion batteries to boost electric car performance. Yet supplies of both materials are constrained, and ethical issues have long dogged cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the top supplier. Nickel, which helps provide power and range, is also prone to fire, a risk the industry is spending billions to control.

Higher prices of nickel are currently having an impact on battery cells, according to Tesla’s chief financial officer Zach Kirkhorn. “Some of those costs have been flowing through to us,” he said on an earnings call. “It’s not a substantial amount of cost, but it’s not small.”

Tesla has been using LFP batteries in China supplied by Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), the world’s largest battery maker. Though the batteries, which are cheaper and more stable than alternatives, have in the past lacked the energy density – a key factor for electric cars – that’s quickly changing.

CATL has delivered methods to eke out better performance from the components, along with start-ups like Novi, Michigan-based Our Next Energy, that’s won backing from Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Those advances mean the batteries are increasingly suitable for most regular electric models in all markets.

At Tesla’s Battery Day last September, Elon Musk flagged the firm could look to use LFP components for lower-cost models, a nickel-manganese based chemistry for long-range cars and a high-nickel chemistry for the harder working Semi and Cybertruck. Mr Musk has also frequently warned about tight supply and surging costs of nickel.

Mr Musk appears to be “getting very concerned when he’s looking at long-term supplies of nickel and to some extent cobalt, and he doesn’t see a clear solution to how we ramp up production of those minerals in time to ensure price stability,” said Jim Greenberger, executive director of NAATBatt, a non-profit trade association for advanced battery technology in North America.

Tesla likely also has confidence LFP technology will continue to improve, Mr Greenberger said.