In the world of life, there are small challenges and there are major, critical, existential challenges. That’s the story for humans, for businesses, and for industries. Limited cobalt supply is being pitched more and more as an existential problem for the electric vehicle revolution (and for Tesla in particular), but it’s really just another cog in the machine that needs to get moving.
The hottest trending hype about what will supposedly stop an electric vehicle revolution — and take down Tesla — has morphed over the years. “It will be X.” Well, no. “It will be Y.” Nope. “It will be Z.” Try again. As these other “death sentences” have been overcome, the naysayers have had to find new concerns to cling to. Because, you know, life is no fun if you aren’t worrying or casting doubt on positive forecasts of the future.
Now, the naysaying world of anti-EV and anti-Tesla commenters is all over cobalt. “There’s not enough of it! Where will people find it! Current suppliers commit human rights abuse!* The price is going to skyrocket! Game over for the EV market — and especially Tesla! (So long and thanks for all the tweets.)”
Not knowing how much cobalt supplies are a genuine point of concern and a bottleneck for much greater mass production of EV batteries, and thus EVs, I’ve spoken to EV battery experts several times in recent months to try to learn more. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions or run with one quote just because my preference is for clean transport to take over the world quicker than not. I wanted to really understand this issue and understand if it’s a major point of risk. But after discussing with a handful of experts, the story seems to be quite different from what John Petersen claims.
Petersen is one of those fellows who has been claiming that the end of Tesla is nigh since the company’s stock price was approximately $30. To his credit, he admits this. Not ignoring that credit, he has been on the wrong side of Tesla and the wrong side of history in article after article for several years now. He continues to claim, however, that the fundamentals are against the Silicon Valley
startup giant. One of the most dire posts I’ve seen from him is linked above. He essentially lays it out like this:
♦ Cobalt demand will exceed supply by 42% in 2025 and 170% in 2030.
♦ “The time required to convert exploration success into a new mine is about 30 years.”
♦ That means prices will jack up a lot, and thus, prices of EVs won’t come down as people/companies expect.
♦ The grand summary from the author: this is “an existential threat to Tesla and the EV revolution.”
Sounds pretty bad, eh?
How could so many automakers make so many big EV plans with this issue glaring them in the face? I wanted to find out.
The first couple of people I talked to were a couple of market experts from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) — Logan Goldie-Scot, Head of Energy Storage Analysis, and Michael Wilshire, Head of Strategy. The summary of their response seemed to be clear: The market will respond to the increased demand and scale up.
Yes, a quick rise in EV demand could result in a short-term cobalt crunch that could increase the price of cobalt — actually, that’s already happening. But high prices are a signal for more players to get in the game and for existing players to ramp up production. This is how markets grow and evolve.
Anyone who has followed the solar power industry for a decade or so may quickly jump to an analogy there. With the initial jump in demand for solar power (driven especially by a big boom in Germany), there was a silicon crunch. That led to a bump up in silicon, solar cell, and solar panel prices. Looking at a chart of those solar prices at that point in time might have led some people to think the price of solar panels would be going up for a while. Ha! The market responded — a lot of silicon production capacity came online. Actually, too much came online and solar prices plunged. While many experts claimed for a while that the drop in solar costs would then level off, they actually kept going down, down, down — a story for later today.
Today, a bump in cobalt prices may look daunting — threatening to the whole EV industry even. However, the experts at BNEF are confident the market will quickly solve the problem, boost production capacity, and bring prices back down. Here’s BNEF founder Michael Liebreich chatting with me about it a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi (inside a Tesla Model X for the first leg of the 2018 EVRT):
Incidentally, earlier in the day, he was giving a presentation at The Mobility Conference, co-organized by CleanTechnica, in which he included the following commentary (will add charts below the video if I can get them):
“The price spike is the signal for investors. The investors pile in. The price comes back down. I guarantee it will be the same.”
Logan Goldie-Scot had more detail to share. He added that there was a known way to simply reduce the amount of cobalt in a battery with little to no downside. Here are some of Logan’s comments:
“Cobalt mining has historically been dependent on demand and production of copper (or, in some cases, nickel). I don’t know [Petersen’s] source for a lag of 30 years, but I would imagine it is is likely because post-exploration there was no economically feasible demand for the metal. If cobalt prices continue to rise as they have done, this is likely to change since it will be economical to mine it as a standalone resource.”
He added that this claim Petersen made that “the time required to convert exploration success into a new mine is about 30 years” appears to ignore the fact that cobalt is typically mined as a secondary metal — “otherwise, it would suggest that it applies to copper and nickel.” In other words, the claim of 30 years seems to be misleading since it’s about cobalt’s collection as a “hey, we found this as well” metal instead of as a core, targeted, high-demand metal. Going on:
“In terms of whether demand will exceed supply by 170%, I assume that is based on current levels of supply (or known and operational mines). It’s more likely that as prices are driven higher, other miners will look to bring new production capacity online to meet this demand. Alternatively, and unlike lithium, there will be greater substitution. We’re already seeing a push away from NMC 111 to chemistries with higher nickel content (and lower cobalt) such as NMC 811. If there really is a deficit in the market, this change will be accelerated. And finally, no — I don’t think this poses an existential threat. There is significant opportunity for new production to come online, changes in cathode chemistry and enhanced recycling that I think make it unlikely cobalt will act as a ceiling for EV adoption.”
The reference to NMC 111 and NMC 811 probably confuses many of you, but this is what I mentioned briefly above. In an NMC 111 battery, there’s 1 part nickel, 1 part manganese, 1 part cobalt oxide. In an NMC 811 battery, there are 8 parts nickel, 1 part manganese, 1 part cobalt oxide. See what’s going on there?
Meanwhile, in a conversation with someone from Tesla, it was noted that cobalt simply is not that significant to the composition of Tesla’s battery cells. Tesla mainly uses NCA batteries, which contain substantially less cobalt than the NMC batteries that most competitors use. Furthermore, Tesla reiterated that, in general, the trend in the material development world is towards higher-energy, lower-cobalt chemistries.
In summary, the market is likely to respond appropriately to any cobalt crunches, there are battery chemistries that largely get around the problem (whether NMC 111, Tesla’s own NCA preference, or coming battery chemistries), and the imminent death of the EV revolution seems nothing more than a mirage … yet again.
*A real problem, and one that companies like Tesla are trying to fix.
In this modern-day David and Goliath battle (multiplied by eight), one man is trying to take down a bevy of behemoth industries. CB Insights reports, “Elon Musk thinks and acts on a larger, more cosmic scale than we’re accustomed to… His main projects take on almost every major industry and global problem conceivable, and imagine a disruptive fundamental rewiring of that space or sector.”
|Above: The companies and initiatives connected to Elon Musk (Source: CB Insights)|
So which sectors are on Musk’s hit list? CB Insights looks at: “8 different industries where Musk and his companies operate to understand how they have begun to change,” transform, and mold them into Musk’s futuristic vision. Digital Journal provides a top-line recap highlighting the scope and breadth of what Elon Musk is attempting…
Musk’s efforts with Tesla Energy (including the acquisition of SolarCity coupled with stationary battery storage) could completely alter domestic and international power utilities and the traditional utility business model. And Tesla is expanding beyond solar panels into stunning solar roof tiles. In addition, the company’s recent efforts in Australia already represent the world’s biggest battery installation.
Musk also wants Tesla’s electric vehicles to be increasingly affordable. In addition to launching the lower priced Model 3, Tesla’s Autopilot is moving the company closer to the goal of having Level 5 self-driving cars. In turn, Musk’s Tesla Network initiative may eventually pose a major challenge to UBER, Lyft, and traditional taxi firms.
Telecommunications – covering the world with internet from space
Musk’s satellite initiatives at SpaceX could begin to alter how the public gets online as well as providing fast, affordable Internet. These efforts include providing the Internet to many remote communities currently without access. SpaceX requested permission from US government to operate network of 4,425 satellites to provide high-speed, global internet coverage. Samuel Gibbs and agencies.
The Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, is planning to put more than 4,000 satellites in orbit in order to blanket the Earth with internet access. SpaceX, the privateer space company led by Musk, is requesting permission from the US government to operate a massive network of 4,425 satellites – plus “in-orbit spares” – to provide high-speed, global internet coverage.
Documents filed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday propose an initial launch of 800 satellites to create an orbiting digital communications array to cover the US, including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. In the filing, SpaceX said: “The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, government and professional users worldwide.”
Such a system would provide a space-based alternative to cable, fiber-optics and the other terrestrial internet access currently available.
SpaceX is not the first to propose such a system. Similar internet-via-satellite networks are under development by privately owned OneWeb and by Boeing, while a $200m satellite leased by Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which has a similar goal of providing global internet access, was destroyed in an explosion of the SpaceX launch vehicle contracted to send it into orbit.
Each satellite SpaceX proposes to put into orbit, without its solar panels extended, is the size of an average car, measuring 4m by 1.8 by 1.2m and weighing 386kg. SpaceX has not set a date for the satellite launches, but said that they would orbit in a range between 714 miles and 823 miles above the Earth.
Musk said in January 2015 that the plan would cost at least $10bn. It gained $1bn in funding from Google for the project. Google has been attempting to perform a similar feat, blanketing the globe in internet access, using high-altitude balloons. Facebook’s other internet initiatives have revolved around the use of high-altitude solar-powered drones. SpaceX operates a satellite launching business, with contracts with NASA for supplying the International Space Station.
Efforts in the transportation sector include Musk’s brainchild, the Hyperloop, a proposed fifth mode of transportation, which aims to reduce the 6-hour trip from DC to New York to a mere 30 minutes. A Hyperloop is a proposed mode of passenger and/or freight transportation, already being tested extensively by Musk’s pal Richard Branson via Virgin Hyperloop One.
|Above: A few of Musk’s efforts to disrupt entrenched industries (Source: CB Insights)|
Musk’s venture into tunnel boring aims to lower costs across the tunneling industry. Currently, CB Insights notes, a mile of tunnel costs $1 billion to dig. In late 2017, Musk’s tongue-in-cheek named “Boring Company” already started digging in Los Angeles.
While SpaceX plans future flights to Mars, the company’s rocket technology could also revolutionize Earth travel as well, including a type of “spaceflight” trip connecting international cities like London and Hong Kong. This concept takes advantage of sub-orbital space flight routes around the globe. Musk believes with such a flight trajectory, you can reach anywhere on earth in under an hour.
Musk showed a demonstration of the idea onstage, claiming that it will allow passengers to take “most long-distance trips” in just 30 minutes, and go “anywhere on Earth in under an hour” for around the same price as an economy airline ticket.
Musk proposed using SpaceX’s forthcoming mega-rocket (codenamed Big Fucking Rocket or BFR for short) to lift a massive spaceship into orbit around the Earth. The ship would then settle down on floating landing pads near major cities. Both the new rocket and spaceship are currently theoretical, though Musk did say that he hopes to begin construction on the rocket in the next six to nine months.
In SpaceX’s video that illustrates the idea, passengers take a large boat from a dock in New York City to a floating launchpad out in the water. There, they board the same rocket that Musk wants to use to send humans to Mars by 2024. But instead of heading off to another planet once they leave the Earth’s atmosphere, the ship separates and breaks off toward another city — Shanghai.
Just 39 minutes and some 7,000 miles later, the ship reenters the atmosphere and touches down on another floating pad, much like the way SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 rockets at sea. Other routes proposed in the video include Hong Kong to Singapore in 22 minutes, London to Dubai or New York in 29 minutes, and Los Angeles to Toronto in 24 minutes.
This proposed method of Earth-city-to-Earth-city travel would be, by far, the fastest ever created by humanity. The ship would reach a speed of about 18,000 miles per hour at its peak, Musk said, which is more than an order of magnitude faster than the Concorde.
Musk presented the idea at the very end of his speech, so he was light on details when it comes to the other logistics surrounding this proposal. (In fact, most of Musk’s speech was about how he wants to use this new rocket system to make all current and forthcoming Falcon rockets obsolete.) Using the numbers he showed earlier in the talk when describing the ship’s capacity with regards to the Moon and Mars, we can estimate it could carry somewhere between 80 and 200 people per trip. But we don’t know other basics like how much of the air travel market Musk sees this occupying, how it would be regulated, or even when SpaceX might attempt such a feat.
We also don’t know what the passenger experience would be like, and that’s an important factor in an idea like this. The thought of blasting off on a rocket to space is exciting, as is the potential for adding moments of weightlessness to your trip to London or wherever. But will people actually be willing to put their bodies through these kinds of extreme stresses for the sake of shaving a few hours off their trip?
And then there’s the landing. Despite occasional hiccups, airplanes land with overwhelming success. To its credit, SpaceX has gotten really good at landing its Falcon 9 rockets both on land and at sea, and Musk even began his speech by touting how 16 of them have landed successfully in a row. But the difference between landing a 14-story rocket booster with no passengers and a large ship full of them is one Musk will hopefully expound upon, either during another presentation or the next time he opens Twitter.
Musk has expressed concerns about artificial intelligence triggering a world war; for this reason he is seeking to build better AI. Musk has been quoted as saying: “I keep sounding the alarm bell but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal.” In the interim, he’s funding OpenAI to research the matter.
Musk has been looking to merge healthcare and technology via a high-bandwidth, minimally invasive brain machine interface designed by Neuralink. Musk has said the company aims to make devices to treat serious brain diseases in the short-term, with the eventual goal of human enhancement.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink Gets $27 Million to Build Brain Computers By Dana Hull August 25, 2017
San Francisco-based company hiring engineers and scientists
Brain-machine interface hopes to connect humans with computers
Neuralink Corp., the startup co-founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has taken steps to sell as much as $100 million in stock to fund the development of technology that connects human brains with computers. The San Francisco-based company has already gotten $27 million in funding, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Musk said via Twitter on Friday that Neuralink isn’t seeking outside investors. A spokesman didn’t respond to questions about the source of the funds. Musk, 46, is the chief executive officer of Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and has several other pet projects, including a venture to bore tunnels for roads or tube-based transportation systems known as the hyperloop, and another project for the responsible development of artificial intelligence.
Few details are known about Neuralink. The company’s sparse website says it’s “developing ultra-high bandwith brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.” It’s also recruiting engineers and scientists to join the effort. “No neuroscience experience is required: talent and drive matter far more,” the company says on the site. “We expect most of our team to come from other areas and industries.” Before it’s here, it’s on the Bloomberg Terminal.
In June, Musk said Neuralink is a priority after much more demanding commitments to his automotive and rocket companies. “Boring Co. is maybe 2 percent of my time; Neuralink is 3 percent to 5 percent of my time; OpenAI is going to be a couple of percent; and then 90-plus percent is divided between SpaceX and Tesla,” said Musk at the electric-car maker’s annual shareholder meeting.
|Above: Outer space, electric cars, and energy production are just a few of the areas Elon Musk is trying to tackle (Flickr: Carsten Hensch)|
Elon Musk’s ecosystem of initiatives outlined here, “take on almost every major industry and global problem conceivable, and imagine a disruptive fundamental rewiring of that space or sector.” CB Insights concludes, “These companies represent huge possible disruptions, some sized in the trillions of dollars, because their potential payoff is much more than winning a specific vertical or market — it’s the future of humanity itself.”