This year, Tesla’s stock price has surged 66%. And buying shares in Elon Musk’s company is far from the only way to cash in on the future of electric cars.
Investors are sending the prices of the raw materials used to make lithium-ion batteries rapidly higher on hopes that demand for electric cars surges. The rise comes amid fears that the supply of the metals needed for batteries might not meet the new demand.
Volkswagen, the world’s largest carmaker, said this year that it expects to need 200 GWh of battery-cell production by 2025 and plans to invest €20 billion ($23.4 billon) in zero-emissions vehicles. This would require a huge increase in production because there is only 266 GWh of new battery capacity in the worldwide pipeline between now and 2020, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
Government environmental initiatives are likely to increase demand. The UK and France are banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 and China says that 10% of cars it produces by 2019 must be zero-emissions. There’s huge room for growth, too: electric vehicles account for six of the ten fastest-selling used car models in the US, where they make up just 1% of total new sales.
Here’s a look at trading in the component elements that go into the manufacture of the different types of lithium-ion batteries:
Since the start of 2015, the price of lithium has climbed nearly 200%, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. The price is likely to keep rising because the lithium supply remains tight despite minor expansion by current producers and new supply out of Western Australia, Benchmark says.
Prices for lithium chemicals in China have jumped almost 30% this year alone, the firm added, as the government crackdowns on pollution will impact the companies that convert lithium into chemicals from the products that are mined. As China is the leading producer of the main primary battery-grade chemicals, price increases there will be felt around the world.
More than any other product used to make lithium-ion batteries there are real concerns about the limited supply of cobalt, which has pushed the price up 80% this year. The problem: 60% of the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where political instability and violence have created a serious moral dilemma for miners and companies such as Tesla and Apple. The United Nations has reportedly found scores of mass graves this year, with deaths that they link to government forces. This has led some companies to pull out of mining and focus on resources elsewhere, especially in Canada. Still, the sheer scale of the resources in the DRC means there will be a struggle to produce a sufficient supply.
Cobalt is also mined as byproduct of copper and nickel, linking its fortunes to those markets.
Last month, the price of copper climbed to its highest level in three years. BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company (by market value) and producer of copper, says it expects copper to be one of the commodities most immediately impacted by electric vehicles. Arnoud Balhuizen, head of marketing at the company, said an electric car uses 80 kilos of copper for wiring, compared to 20 for a petroleum-fueled one. Even as more copper will be needed as electric vehicle production increases, price gains probably will not be as dramatic as for other battery elements. There is a much larger supply of copper than of, for example, cobalt, and its market price is heavily linked to changes in demand in China.
Investing in nickel as a play on the electric car market is probably one the less straightforward options available, as can be seen by the frequent price swings in the chart above. However, nickel is used heavily in some lithium-ion batteries, particularly the popular NMC version (nickel, manganese, and cobalt). As the price of cobalt rises to astronomical heights, battery makers are working to increase the amount of nickel used in place of cobalt. Last year, Elon Musk attempted to play down the importance of the most expensive metals in Tesla’s lithium-ion batteries, noting that the major components are nickel and graphite. Still, the need for nickel comes with another set of concerns about the environment and health costs of mining it. Mine closures, for environmental reasons or because of low market prices, mean that ensuring a clean supply of nickel could lead to supply squeezes and higher prices.
Aluminium and manganese are prevalent raw materials that are also used in new battery technology. In the past year, the price of aluminium has risen almost 30%. It reached a five-year high last month when Chinese producers cut back in response to the government’s environmental crackdown heading into the winter months.
Manganese offers another, less crowded route into the electric car market. It’s likely to remain in large supply because of its critical use in the production of steel. Still, demand will increase as it’s used in batteries for cars and in other energy-storage devices and supply issues aren’t entirely non-existent. Most of the supply is in four countries: South Africa, Australia, China, and Gabon. The US must import all of its supply, mostly from South Africa. S&P Global Market Intelligence recently said manganese prices were near five-year highs and the outlook for 2017 was positive.
Palladium, not actually a component of electric cars, is benefitting from the wider push to cut emissions that has increased demand for electric vehicles. It is heavily used in catalytic convertors that convert the harmful gases from cars into less toxic substances. This year’s price surge has led palladium prices to rise above those of platinum for the first time in 16 years. The prices of this metal can also be pushed up quickly by geopolitics as the world’s leading producer of palladium is Norilsk Nickel, a Russian company.
The companies providing all these raw materials are also seeing growth. Standouts in 2017 have been lithium producers Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM), a Chilean company, and Albemarle, a US company. Their stock prices have surged 110% and 70% respectively so far this year.