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'Please mine more nickel,' Musk urges as Tesla boosts production

TechnologyJul 23, 2020 04:30AM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Tesla car is seen in Los Angeles

By Yilei Sun and Melanie Burton

BEIJING/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Tesla Inc (O:TSLA) boss Elon Musk urged miners to produce more nickel, a key ingredient in the batteries that power the company's electric cars, warning the current cost of batteries remained a big hurdle to the company's growth.

"Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way," Musk said on a post-earnings call on Wednesday.

Nickel makes batteries energy dense so cars can run further on a single charge, and Tesla needs the metal more than ever as it looks to ramp up production of trucks and solar projects that use a lot of nickel.

Musk's call for greater nickel mining comes even as prices for battery materials wallow around rock bottom.

However, traders and analysts say the kinds of volumes Tesla would need are unlikely to make a compelling business case for miners to invest in increased production, nor are they likely to boost prices in the medium term.

Tesla currently sources nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) batteries from South Korea's LG Chem Ltd (KS:051910) and nickel-cobalt-aluminium (NCA) batteries from Japan's Panasonic Corp (T:6752).

These companies indirectly buy nickel from mining companies in a long auto supply chain. Tesla doesn't disclose which nickel miners are in its supply chain.

Given Tesla's focus on sustainability, the company is likely to prefer to buy from miners of higher-grade nickel sulphide, which requires less power to process than laterite ore, said Lachlan Shaw of National Australia Bank (OTC:NABZY).

There are three key suppliers - Brazil's Vale (SA:VALE3), which operates in Canada using some hydropower, Russia's Norilsk Nickel (MM:GMKN) and BHP Group (NYSE:BHP)'s operations (AX:BHP) in Western Australia. "Vale is in the box seat," he said.

While electric vehicles consume a much smaller amount of nickel than traditional industries such as stainless steel makers, EVs are expected to be the quickest growth market for nickel miners.

Nickel consumption in EV battery materials is expected to soar 64% between 2019 and 2025, research firm Wood Mackensie said, although it added that satisfying this demand could be challenging for an industry that has been slow to add capacity in a timely and cost-effective manner.

"He needs nickel, so he hopes nickel prices will go lower and lower," said a China-based nickel trader. "Prices will not be impacted in the short-term because the market is in surplus."

Nickel hit a 14-month low of $10,865 a tonne in March but has since recovered to $13,180, still down by some 30% from five-year peaks seen in September. Prices rallied 2.6 percent partly on Tesla's bullish outlook, a trader said.

Tesla on Wednesday posted a second-quarter profit, but Musk said he would prioritise growth over profit going forward, and focus on making Tesla vehicles more affordable.

"The real limitation on Tesla growth is cell production at affordable price. That's the real limit," Musk said, adding the company would expand its business with Panasonic (T:6752) and CATL (SZ:300750) and "possibly with others".

Tesla is expected to reveal technological advances at its "Battery Day" event in September.

'Please mine more nickel,' Musk urges as Tesla boosts production

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