By on November 6, 2018

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While electric vehicles get better every year, they remain beholden to battery technology. This results in a few inherent shortcomings – the most noteworthy being limited range and extended downtime while charging. While this has helped throw a wet blanket EV adoption, it isn’t the technology’s only fault. Modern car batteries are also dependent on relatively rare metals that are both morally contentious and prohibitively expensive to procure.

Cobalt, mined almost exclusively in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and often by children, is likely the worst offender. Prices skyrocketed after EV manufacturing went mainstream, and analysts have long predicted a shortage that could severely impact the long-term popularity of zero-emission vehicles. Fortunately, a new way to build batteries may be on the horizon, though this particular application could create as many issues as it solves – since it involves removing an element that’s paramount to a battery’s long-term stability. 

We’ve been hearing about next-gen battery technology for years, without any giant leaps forward. It’s always “just around the corner.” Instead, energy storage has grown incrementally — always better than it was, but not as good as it could be.

Still, minimizing the need for cobalt could be a good thing. The mining industry is already nearing capacity and employing children to do an extremely dangerous job creates some unique human rights issues. We’ve previously noted that kids having dangerous jobs might be preferable to their being forced into the army, but neither option sounds ideal. By all accounts, it seems like a terrible place to grow up.

Regardless, automakers may be less dependent on them in the future. According to Bloomberg, Turkish-born, Massachusetts-based tech entrepreneur Kenan Sahin has found a way to drastically reduce cobalt requirements in nickel-based batteries. His companies, CAMX and TIAX LLC, previously developed the CAM-7 graphite lithium-ion unit that was looked upon favorably by the military and adopted by BSAF.

The new system, called GEMX, is said to be applicable in a number of nickel-based power packs and has been granted patents in the U.S., the European Union, China and Japan. Currently in Berlin for an annual auto industry conference, Sahin said he’s in talks with large manufacturers, and one has already agreed to buy a license.

“We’re hoping we will get this into the hands of the major producers,” Sahin told Bloomberg. The new formula is said to lower cobalt content to as little as 4 percent of battery cathodes, down from about 20 percent today.

Many automakers are already attempting to minimize their cobalt use; Tesla managed to reduce its own cobalt needs for the Model 3 by a large margin with help from Panasonic. Unfortunately, issues can arise when you remove cobalt from the equation — it’s needed to keep cells stable. Removing cobalt entirely would effectively ruin a battery’s life cycle, making it terrible for automotive applications.

Automakers need to units capable of maintaining 70 percent (or so) of the original charge capacity over a ten-year timespan. Without cobalt, batteries run the risk of overheating. This ups the potential fire risk, makes them less predictable in extreme climates, and drastically shortens their lifespan.

Being able to use just 4 percent cobalt would be a game changer, but it’s unclear if Sahin’s new technology would be able to go the distance with such a small amount. Tesla’s Model S employs cathodes with around 15 percent cobalt content, and most long-term storage applications are closer to 33 percent. Meanwhile, we keep hearing about manganese-based alternatives that are also on the cusp of “disrupting the industry.”

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20 Comments on “Battery Entrepreneur Claims Breakthrough, Reducing Need for Controversial Cobalt...”


  • avatar
    Fred

    Announcing a battery break thru on a financial network is a bit suspicious.

  • avatar
    TimK

    We need to stop wasting time on these interim technologies and go directly to a sustainable fuel for motor vehicles. ICEs running on simple, liquid ammonia are the future — zero carbon emissions and no need for exotic elements or ten thousand mile supply chains.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    In today’s market, the Model 3 is the only one that matters due to its sales dominance and large battery. Apparently its cobalt content is down to about 10% already, with plans to go lower.

    https://electrek.co/2018/05/03/tesla-model-3-battery-cells-rare-data-energy-density-cobalt/

    https://cleantechnica.com/2018/07/17/panasonic-pledges-to-decrease-cobalt-content-of-tesla-ev-batteries/

    “Battery entrepreneur” = akin to somebody developing a Google-killing search engine.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Not good news for the future of Cobalt, Ontario. Where cobalt mining was bring revived.

  • avatar

    “granted patents in the U.S., the European Union, China”

    What? China? Do they even have a concept of patent in China? Are they going to license technology instead just stealing it?

  • avatar
    mcs

    The most interesting and practical new battery tech I’ve seen is semi-solid. An intermediate step before solid state. Solid Energy Systems even has a cell for drones in production now. It’s expensive, but you can buy one now and it makes a big improvement in a drones performance. There are other companies having success with semi-solid as well like 24-M.com

    http://www.solidenergysystems.com/hermes/

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    EV proponents have some messed up priorities. “Now with less child slavery!”

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    Good. We as a nation need to be less dependent on the Chevy Cobalt.

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    Cobalt isn’t exclusively mined in Congo; it’s found other places too, such as Canada. And while there are kids doing “artisanal mining” (yes, they call it that) in Congo, the majority of cobalt there is produced by conventional mining operations. Most of the problematic artisanal cobalt is bought by Chinese brokers and is believed to end up in phones and the like. This is a problem that can be solved by halfway competent supply chain management. To put it another way, it’s a legitimate concern that’s being abused by insincere concern trolls.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      You’re a perfect example of who I was talking about. The majority of cobalt comes from the Congo, and none of it is clean. Artisanal mining refers to ripping up homes for the cobalt they’re built on. Even the so-called industrial mining involves abysmal conditions and health prospect for miners who are often children, although officials always specify there are less children in the mines than before. I am completely sincere in my opinion of your sort.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        @toddatlas: I’m glad to see you’re concerned about children. Here are a few papers to take a look at:

        https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1164/ajrccm.164.12.2106126

        https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935112001442

        https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/pollution-clean-air-day-children-school-walking-environment-unicef-global-action-plan-a8408776.html

        https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2598278

      • 0 avatar
        HotPotato

        How does that compare to the environmental and human rights damage from the petroleum status quo—worse or not? Spoiler: not. Ask Ken Saro-Wiwa. Oops, you can’t.

        Can it be improved or not? Spoiler: it can. It’s not just this dude. GM announced earlier this year that it intends to switch to a new low-cobalt battery in 2020-21. They get there partly by using more nickel, which isn’t exactly a breath of pure oxygen either. But like all technical and human problems, there are solutions to the challenges with cobalt.


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