With millions of zero emission cars set to hit the streets over the next few years, the race is on to find a formula for lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries that ditches cobalt in favor of more abundant, less expensive materials. A nice boost in performance would help, but can you really have your EV battery cake and it it, too? A team of US researchers apparently thinks so.
What’s The Problem With Using Cobalt In Electric Vehicle Batteries?
Although outgoing (finally) President Trump has postured himself as a champion of fossil fuels, during his tenure, the US Department of Energy ramped up its EV battery programs with the aim of integrating millions more zero emission vehicles into the national economy in the near future. That’s not such great news for petroleum stakeholders, but hey, the last four years have been kind of crazy for everyone.
Where were we? Oh right, eliminating cobalt from electric vehicle batteries. The Energy Department has been casting about for ways to eliminate cobalt from new electric vehicle batteries, and it firmed up that commitment in 2019 when it issued a new plan for next-generation EV batteries.
The 2019 plan zeroes right in on cobalt, which the Energy Department has identified as a critical material that is at highest risk for supply chain issues.
“Cobalt is one of the most common materials found in lithium-ion battery cathodes and plays an important role in stabilizing the cathode while the battery is in operation,” explains the Energy Department, while noting that “The Democratic Republic of Congo supplies nearly 58% of the world’s cobalt and 80% of that supply goes to China.”
“China is the world’s leading producer of refined cobalt and a leading supplier of cobalt imports to the United States,” the agency adds.
Along with basic bottom line supply chain risks the Energy Department also notes areas of additional concern:
“The mining practices in Congo have been of concern because of a lack of environmental safeguards, labor, health issues, and political uncertainty. These factors may limit the availability of cobalt to the supply chain and increase its demand, leading to rapid price increases in lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt is considered the highest material supply risk for EVs in the short- and medium-term.”
Banishing Cobalt From Electric Vehicle Batteries
Okay, so we’re convinced. As described by the Energy Department, considerable progress has been made along the road to a zero-cobalt battery.
“The first generation of lithium-ion batteries for consumer electronics contained cathodes with 60% cobalt. The first generation of EV batteries contained 33% cobalt in cathodes, while current commercial cathodes in EV batteries contain 15-20% cobalt, and industry is actively developing 10% cobalt cathodes,” they summarize.
That’s all well and good, but the 2019 battery plan still warned of potential supply chain risks with the growth of the electric vehicle marketplace. Even 10% cobalt involves future supply chain risks.
The Zero Cobalt Battery
The 2019 plan was not all doom and gloom. The Energy Department noted that research through its Vehicle Technologies Office already brought the cost of electric vehicle battery packs down by 80% in just a few short years, putting a near-term goal of less than $150/kWh within reach. They also noted plenty of room for improvement.
“Current battery technology performance is far below its theoretically possible limits. Near-term opportunities exist to develop innovative technologies that have the potential to significantly reduce battery cost and achieve the operational performance needed for EVs to achieve cost competitiveness with gasoline vehicles,” the Energy Department explained.
Things have already been moving along on the cobalt-free front. By 2018, nickel and iron were becoming the focus of advanced energy storage research, and in 2019 IBM introduced a new cobalt-free battery,
To help push things even more along, the 2019 Energy Department plan included a new $50 million round of funding for advanced battery research aimed at replacing cobalt while lowering costs and improving performance, and it looks like the investment is already starting to pay off.
The latest EV battery development was announced by the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in December. It is based on a new class of cathodes called NFA for nickel, iron, and aluminum.
For those of you who don’t keep your periodic table of the elements handy, the symbol for iron is Fe, which is the abbreviation for iron from the Latin word ferrum, so it’s NFA and not NIA.
The NFA-class formula builds on previous research hinting that nickel could reduce or eliminate the need for cobalt in a lithium battery.
“Lithium nickelate has long been researched as the material of choice for making cathodes, but it suffers from intrinsic structural and electrochemical instabilities,” explains Oak Ridge lead scientist Ilias Belharouak. “In our research, we replaced some of the nickel with iron and aluminum to enhance the cathode’s stability. Iron and aluminum are cost-effective, sustainable and environmentally friendly materials.”
“These novel cathodes are designed to be fast charging, energy dense, cost effective, and longer lasting,” enthuses the lab, while hinting that a zero-cobalt EV battery can’t come soon enough.
You can get all the juicy details from the research team’s studies, recently published in the journals Advanced Materials and the Journal of Power Sources, but don’t get too excited just yet. As described by the lab, NFA-class energy storage is still in the early stages of research.
Actually, go ahead and get excited. Equaling the performance of cobalt is just one part of the electric vehicle battery puzzle. The other part is ease of manufacturing, and Oak Ridge created the NFA formula as a drop-in replacement that can be integrated into the global cathode manufacturing network.
Hey, Who’s Gonna Clean Up This EV Battery Mess?
Speaking of manufacturing, the other side of the electric vehicle battery coin is disposal, preferably by recycling.
There will be lots to recycle. The Energy Department expects that more than 100 million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030. Even with a relatively long lifespan, EV batteries have to give out sooner or later.
The lithium battery recycling market has been slow to develop. According to our friends over at IEEE Spectrum, as of 2019 about 180,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries could have been recycled globally, but only a little over 90,000 tons made it to the recycling center.
However it looks like help is on the way. IEEE reports that Canada’s Li-Cycle is moving forward to build the largest battery recycling facility in North America, to be located at the former Eastman Kodak complex in Rochester, New York.
“The plant will have an eventual capacity of 25 metric kilotons of input material, recovering 95 percent or more of the cobalt, nickel, lithium, and other valuable elements through the company’s zero-wastewater, zero-emissions process,” IEEE notes.
That’s just for starters. IEEE cites the consulting firm Circular Energy Storage, which estimates that Li-ion battery recycling is already in the works or in the planning stages fro approximately 100 different companies around the world.
Stay tuned for more on that new Li-Cycle recycling facility, it’s a doozy.
Follow me on Twitter.
Image: New cobalt-free EV battery formula via Oak Ridge National Laboratory (credit: .