Alternatives to cobalt, this bloody diamond from batteries
Untreated copper-cobalt ore
When John Gudenaf created the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery at Oxford in 1980 [or rather, developed a cathode for it / approx. transl.], he needed cobalt. Experiments have already shown that this metal has a high energy density and is ideal for small batteries that require a lot of energy. Therefore, Goudénaf extracted cobalt independently, heating the precursors to very high temperatures.
Today, cobalt is present in most commercial lithium-ion batteries - but you have to pay for it. Yes, this silver metal is expensive. But he has a darker price: a long history of human rights violations, including the use of children in miningrelated to the production of metal in the Democratic Republic of Congo . Companies producing electronics and electric cars do not want to pay for it and demonstrate their involvement in these atrocities, so they tried to cut down on the amount of cobalt used. Panasonic, the battery supplier for Tesla, in June announced the development of batteries that do not require cobalt. They enlisted the help of scientists: Goudnafe and other specialists have already developed rechargeable batteries that do not require cobalt.
The miner works in the former industrial cobalt-copper mine Tilwebembe near Kolwezi , the capital of the province of Lualaba in the south of the Congo. June 2016.
The batteries have an anode, a positive end, usually using graphite, and a cathode, a negative end, containing a combination of lithium, cobalt, and oxygen. Most likely, you are reading this text from a device containing such a battery. In electric vehicles, the cathode usually contains more nickel than smaller devices — which reduces the pressure on the cobalt supply chain, but such batteries usually cost more and are at greater risk of spontaneous combustion in airplanes, as in the notorious Samsung Galaxy Note 7 device. Electrons in an outer orbit cobalt are paired, which means that it is small, dense, and easily forms layers.
But a new wave of battery researchers, including Gudenath, is moving to materials such as manganese and iron. Instead of layers, these elements are held together in a structure resembling rock salt . Cathodes from "rock salt" are already used in some devices, but so far they lack the same high energy density as cobalt or nickel.
Researchers and companies are trying to find alternatives. “Cobalt is expensive, and people will try not to use it,” says Gudnaf, still a professor of engineering at the University of Texas. Over the past two years, the cost of cobalt has quadrupled., and although the lion’s share is used by handheld electronic devices, electric vehicle batteries will require almost 1000 times more cobalt than a telephone. And taking into account anthropogenic climate change, more and more people change the internal combustion engine to electric. And if this trend may be useful for the planet, the prices of cobalt continue to grow.
Cobalt is a by-product of the production of other metals, such as nickel and copper, but it also exists in the earth's crust and independently, and the mines for its mining are mostly located in Congo. In 2016, the Washington Post newspaper investigated the cobalt supply chain that was previously unknown, and revealed the practice of using child labor and the lack of necessary equipment.
Of course, there is another way to avoid the hazards of ore mining: reuse. But lithium-ion batteries live so long that in the next 10 years the number of people who buy them will be ahead of the number of people who get rid of them, explains Elsa Olivetti, a professor who studies energy sources in MTI. Last October, she published a paper with the conclusion that cobalt supplies would have to be increased very quickly to meet demand in the next couple of years, especially with the increase in the number of electric vehicles. Despite the progress in the development of cathodes and the extraction of cobalt, observed in the last eight months, “I think the general conclusion is that we will have to think carefully about cobalt,” she writes. “But people already started doing this,” developing cathodes with stable substances with high energy density, like phosphorus and iron.
But researchers are looking for ways to go beyond layered batteries and “rock salt” batteries — they are developing solid state batteries. They may need more lithium, but not necessarily cobalt, and they will be much safer than modern lithium-ion batteries. Automobile companies, for example, BWM, Toyota and Honda, are engaged in the study of such batteries, but Olivetti believes that this technology will be ready to enter the market not earlier than 2025. Until then, companies will try to mitigate the effects of cobalt batteries. Companies such as Apple and Samsung have joined the Responsible Cobalt", designed to address the worst social and environmental implications of the supply chain. Recently, Apple began buying cobalt directly from miners to ensure that suppliers reach acceptable labor standards in their workplaces.
Gudenaf still works with cobalt, although he is 96 years old. And although he he developed a battery that works without cobalt, he does not think that the battery days spent a millimeter from our ears are numbered. He says that although the cost of cobalt is high, its original lithium-ion battery circuit is still tatochno good [Goodenough inventor's last name consists of two words, good enough, which means "good enough" / approx. Trans.].