According to the latest data from EnergyTrend, a division of TrendForce, cobalt prices continued to rise in 2018 and soared by more than 20% in the first quarter. The rise of raw material prices results from short-term capital speculation and high supplier concentration. This concentrated industry structure may continue to push up the prices in long term. The soaring costs of raw material will be reflected in prices of lithium batteries and new energy vehicles quarter by quarter. This is also a challenge for the battery industry, which has been figuring out ways to reduce the dependence on cobalt.
According to Duff Lu, senior research manager of EnergyTrend, the price of cobalt has been a focus of market. The use of cobalt provides battery makers with the easiest way to increase energy density before the new generation materials become matured. The price of cobalt metal hits new highs, from US$32/kg in early 2017 to US$75/kg at the year end, an annual growth of 114%. In 1Q18, the price went up by another 26% quarterly, reaching US$95/kg. The soaring price will bring more challenges to the development of new energy vehicle industry.
"The change in cobalt metal prices is mainly influenced by short-term speculation in the market", says Lu. The prices are mainly decided by the supply side rather than based on supply and demand. In addition, many second-tier makers of battery cells and battery anode material have been hit hard by the fluctuation of raw material prices. Their cost in raw material purchase turned out to be higher than that of the first-tier manufacturers. Battery system makers and branded makers also rely on first-tier manufacturers for cost considerations, resulting in less diversified supply and less healthy competition in the market.
However, in the battery cells of IT products, the proportion of cobalt is less than 5%, therefore the prices of cobalt will have limited impact on consumer electronics.
To reduce cost pressure, battery makers are expected to lower the percentage of cobalt in current NMC batteries
Lu says that battery system makers and branded makers will accelerate the development of new generation material and alternatives to reduce the restriction brought by raw materials. In addition to developing products with high ratio of nickel, battery makers will also accelerate the mass production of lithium-ion batteries that use silicon oxide as cathode materials.
The two approaches above mainly focus on increasing energy density, while another solution based on blended polymer can effectively reduce costs. In the blended polymer solution, NMC and LCO are blended in the anode materials of lithium-ion batteries. Although the energy density is lowered by approximately 20%, this will still be the direction of development for companies due to the low costs. Major battery cell suppliers like Samsung SDI, LG Chem, and Lishen have all proposed blended polymer solutions in which the portion of NMC is higher than 20%. However, swelling of the cell remains a problem for the application of NMC materials in polymer batteries. Therefore, the industry has not yet accumulated complete R&D experience. There will be a chance to see a small amount of blended polymer batteries in the market in the second half of 2018. However, if the cobalt price declines rapidly in the future, it will need further observation to find out whether the development of blended polymer solutions is valuable for the market.