Cobalt-free materials for lithium-ion batteries are in the sights of many investors these days. A new startup is making the news, having acquired a capital raise of several million dollars. At a time when Panasonic is considering additional investment in Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory, others are increasingly seeing the benefit of research support to find alternatives to politically, structurally, and geographically problematic cobalt.
Next Generation Electrode Material for Cobalt-Free Lithium Ion Batteries
Conamix, a little-known startup based in Ithaca, New York, has raised several million dollars to accelerate its development of cobalt-free materials for lithium-ion batteries. The company has developed a new material and process for creating low-cost, high-energy, and cobalt-free electrode materials. Conamix’s technology has the potential to decrease the cost of lithium-based batteries for use in many applications, including electric vehicles, grid storage, and — the next big thing in transportation — electric flight.
The Volta Energy Technologies (Volta) investment is another indication that many companies are actively seeking different pathways than cobalt for use in EV batteries and other applications.
Volta launched in December 2017 with a mission to identify and invest in breakthrough technologies that could impact a crowded energy storage market. As Conamix develops its technology, the startup will be able to draw from Volta’s partnership with Argonne National Laboratory. Volta’s model combines the infrastructure of the national lab system with the team’s technical and investment background.
“Conamix is pleased to partner with Volta to accelerate our launch of the next generation electrode material for lithium ion batteries. We are focusing on new low-cost and high-energy materials that can drop into existing manufacturing systems for the global lithium ion battery market,” said Conamix founder and CEO Charles Hamilton. “Volta is a partner that brings a unique combination of technical and business expertise to Conamix. They have both the connections in the national lab system and the experience and judgement to help us tackle the right challenges on the way to launching a global product.”
In traditional lithium-based batteries, lithium ions are stored in cathodes, the negatively charged electrode. These cathodes are layered structures, with cobalt one of the few elements that won’t move during the charging process, making it critical — up until now — to the battery industry.
“Low-cost and high-energy alternatives to cobalt based battery materials are going to be more and more important as the demand for portable energy storage increases. The world’s supply of cobalt is finite and the price has been increasing dramatically as demand increases. Our approach focuses on drop-in replacements for existing electrode materials in lithium ion and doesn’t require a re-imagining of existing battery architecture or new manufacturing methods.” – Charles Hamilton, Conamix founder and CEO
“We are thrilled to welcome Conamix to Volta’s portfolio of smart, sustainable technology investments,” said Volta CEO Jeff Chamberlain. “Volta exists to identify and enable the development of technologies that could accelerate the ubiquitous adoption of both electric vehicles and renewable power generation, and, at the same time, change the game for our investors by meeting their strategic needs to usher in a new generation of energy storage technology. Volta is particularly excited about Conamix’s potential to simultaneously reduce cost, increase energy, and eliminate the need for cobalt in lithium batteries.”
Panasonic is Considering Additional Investment in Nevada Gigafactory
The need to develop batteries with greater storage capacity and faster charging times presses on EV manufacturers like Tesla and others. Panasonic is trying to sign contracts with clients “in a way that allows the company to hedge risks of surging prices of the materials,” said Yoshio Ito, the chief of Panasonic’s automotive business. Ito said Panasonic worked closely with Tesla to increase production of battery cells and assist meeting production targets of 5,000 units a week of the Model 3 sedan.
Reuters reported that Japan’s Panasonic Corp is testing the proverbial waters to see if additional investment in Tesla’s automotive battery plant in Nevada would be of interest to the all-electric car manufacturer, an executive said on Monday, July 2, 2018. The company is the exclusive battery cell supplier for Tesla’s current production models, producing them in Japan as well as at the Gigafactory, which Panasonic jointly operates.
Panasonic, which is contributing about $1.6 billion to Tesla’s $5 billion Gigafactory, “would consider additional investment if we are requested to do so,” Yoshio Ito, the chief of Panasonic’s automotive business, said at a media roundtable. Ito said last week at Panasonic’s general shareholders meeting that a pickup in production of Tesla’s Model 3 cars has resulted in occasional battery cell shortages.
The Gigafactory is being built in phases, according to Tesla, so that it can begin manufacturing immediately inside the finished sections and continue to expand thereafter. Already, the current structure has a footprint of more than 1.9 million square feet, which houses more than 4.9 million square feet of operational space across several floors. Still, the Gigafactory is less than 30% done. Once complete, Tesla expects the Gigafactory to be the biggest building in the world – and entirely powered by renewable energy sources, with the goal of achieving net zero energy.
With the Gigafactory ramping up production, Tesla’s cost of battery cells will “significantly decline through economies of scale, innovative manufacturing, reduction of waste, and the simple optimization of locating most manufacturing processes under one roof.”
The Problems With Cobalt
Several reasons contribute to the movement away from cobalt content in lithium-ion batteries. Prices of the mineral have multiplied over recent years. Cobalt, which is typically combined with nickel and manganese in electric-car batteries, is relatively scarce. Given the ambitious expansion plans of lithium-ion producers, the world will face cobalt shortages by the early 2020s, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This is keeping prices of lithium-ion batteries high and preventing major automakers from lining up long-term supply deals on favorable terms.
Most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which is known for corruption and human rights violations, including its cobalt “artisanal miners,” who are often children. In 2016, Amnesty International released a report tracing the sale of cobalt, used in lithium-ion batteries, from mines where children as young as 7 and adults work in perilous conditions. Mark Dummett, business and human rights researcher for the report, said, “The glamourous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow man-made tunnels risking permanent lung damage.” Children told Amnesty International they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads to earn between $1-2 a day. In 2014 approximately 40,000 children worked in mines across southern DRC, many of them mining cobalt, according to UNICEF.
A recent cobalt tax increase by the DRC is also bringing new urgency to electric vehicle manufacturers. Tech companies have started to heed the call to discontinue trading relationships with suppliers of DRC cobalt, as the wallet speaks loudly alongside their consciences.
Indeed, cobalt’s mounting threat to electric vehicle growth has prompted a growing number of companies to explore other solutions and to shift to new chemistries with higher energy density and less cobalt.
- LG Chem is attempting to develop ternary (+) electrode material for lithium ion rechargeable batteries with high capacity and safety.
- According to Samsung, it has raised the proportion of nickel in both batteries to above 90%, with that of cobalt at 5%. The firm is now moving to take out cobalt from both technologies. “We have set our sights on drastically reducing the amount of cobalt,” a senior Samsung official said. (Note: Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated recently that Tesla would be reducing cobalt in its batteries from 3% to 0% in the future.)
- Last year, an investment in next-generation battery technology delivered Johnson Matthey its biggest gain in almost a decade. The platinum chemicals specialist surged 14.6% to £33.90 after setting out plans to invest £200m in bringing to market a cobalt-free battery material it claims will cut the cost and increase the range of electric vehicles.
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence notes that cathode and battery manufacturers have been working on reducing their cobalt dependency, “as this is the most expensive raw material input.” Regardless of the good intentions and investments in R&D, Benchmark estimates that cobalt’s use in lithium ion batteries will triple between now and 2026 as a wave of EV demand engulfs the industry. Efforts being made to reduce cobalt dependency and even to become cobalt-free must balance out against the order of magnitude of growth sales, they say.
Image courtesy of Amnesty International