The future of Lithium-ion batteries – Transitioning towards a cobalt-free world!
“We use less than 3% cobalt in our batteries & will use none in next-generation” – Elon Musk on Twitter in 2018
Cobalt is used in the lithium-ion batteries that power our smartphones, laptops, tablets, and electric cars. The demand for cobalt to create batteries is set to increase in the future and there are concerns that we may not have enough cobalt to support future needs in a world of increasing electric vehicle adoption.
The demand for cobalt has been increasing in recent years due to the boom in electric vehicles and mobile devices. Cobalt is an essential raw material used in lithium-ion batteries, which are now being produced in high volumes by various players. More than 35% of global cobalt production is used to provide lighter electric vehicles with a battery source, exceeding 10 million units.
The lithium-ion batteries in use currently are popular due to their portability and long life. However, they do contain cobalt, resulting in a lot of disagreement over their use in electric cars. Tesla has recently announced that they will no longer use cobalt in their battery production. (Source) Let us have look at the reasons why companies all over the world are moving away from cobalt in the production of lithium-ion batteries.
The High-cost associated with Cobalt
In recent years, cobalt has accounted for roughly a quarter of the cost to make a lithium-ion battery, more than the cost of all the other metals in a battery combined. Perhaps the biggest drawback to lithium-ion batteries is the cost of cobalt. The metal, which isn’t particularly abundant, has caused an increase in the price of lithium-ion batteries in recent years.
This volatility has been driven by several factors, but most notably the anticipated exponential increase in demand for electric vehicles over the next decade.
Batteries are one of the fastest-growing segments of the automotive market. Despite this growth, the industry faces a serious challenge: cobalt supply is limited by a small number of suppliers, and new sources are hard to come by. The search for a cheap alternative to cobalt has attracted the attention of battery manufacturers, miners, and material scientists alike.
But researchers are now experimenting with alternatives. “Cobalt is in such show-stopper shortage that the industry has to look beyond the known materials for electrodes,” says Dan Steingart, a battery scientist at Imperial College in London. Instead of cobalt, scientists would like to substitute less expensive materials like nickel and manganese in the battery’s cathode.
Limiting geographical availability and China’s control over cobalt
Cobalt, like many battery metals, is concentrated in one specific region and must be refined. Historically, this region has been the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), accounting for at least 50 percent of the worldwide mined supply, is also a politically unstable country where rules governing land ownership have made large-scale mining all but impossible in recent decades. A 2013 report from Amnesty International raises concerns about many of the Congolese miners working with companies that buy cobalt from the DRC and sell it to battery manufacturers around the world.
The United States is in a trade war with China, an economic competitor, and the world’s largest superpower. As both nations adopt new technology to compete globally, U.S. companies face an increasing cobalt supply crisis of their own making: 75% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where China is investing heavily to secure raw material for its technology industry.
Investors control about 70% of Congo’s mining sector. China also has over 80% control of the cobalt refining industry, where the raw material is turned into commercial-grade cobalt metal suitable for use in EVs. So in light of the U.S.-China trade war, cobalt supply is in a precarious position for U.S. manufacturers relying on foreign sources for NMC battery manufacturing (for electric vehicles). More than 80% of processed cobalt is refined in China and imported as well. And now that China has stepped up its game with EVs and batteries made primarily in China (as opposed to overseas), these batteries could be sold less on the open market due to strategic stockpiling and/or government intervention.
Human rights and environmental issues
There is another major downside to mining cobalt in DRC. The mining industry has been linked to major human rights abuses, including labor exploitation and child labor. Cobalt can be mined by hand, but these mines are often closed due to child labor and lack of regulations. One of the biggest mining companies in the world, Glencore, operates in Congo.
Nearly all of that mining takes place in a corner of the country called Katanga, which for long periods has been wracked by civil war and corruption. Independent studies have found that the majority of mines there are using child labor — and in some cases, whole families toil deep underground, where conditions are harsh and accidents common.
One of the biggest threats posed to the environment from cobalt mining is damage to the ecosystem surrounding Lake Kivu in Africa. This can be minimized and even prevented if done properly by companies that follow safe mining practices and meet strict environmental footprint guidelines.
The replacement for cobalt-free batteries – LFP batteries
There is a revolution occurring in the battery industry. In the last few years, there has been a significant push toward Lithium-ion Phosphate (LiFePO4 or LFP) or Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFeO2 or LFP). Batteries equipped with these new chemistries are now being used to power electric vehicles and many other applications. One of their advantages is that they do not contain any Cobalt, which means they are considered even more eco-friendly since they do not affect the environment in any way. They also have lower power density compared to Nickel Hydrogen (NiMH) batteries so they are considered safer.
LFP (Lithium Iron Phosphate) batteries are now available as cobalt-free produce. Cobalt, not surprisingly, is a relatively scarce material. It is mined from the earth’s crust. The problems with mining cobalt are that it involves a large amount of energy, and there is a risk of cobalt leaking into groundwater.
Cobalt-free (LiFePO4) batteries are a better alternative to batteries that contain cobalt (NCA). That’s because they’re safer and last longer. There are a few different types of LiFePO4 batteries, but the most popular is the LFP, or lithium iron phosphate type. These are the most widely used today in the production of rechargeable lithium-based batteries for electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles.
Tesla recently announced that is making a significant move from Cobalt to Nickel in the production of its LFP batteries and therefore, companies are starting to switch as well. At Volta, we are also going to launch our LFP batteries in a couple of months to move towards this sustainable shift of going cobalt-free slowly and gradually.
It should be clear that a transition away from cobalt in the lithium-ion industry is coming. The technology is there, the economics are there, and the demand for an alternative is growing. Cobalt will not disappear overnight of course, but with each passing year, its presence in the industry will become less significant. The result of this cobalt transition will not only affect the lithium-ion industry but will be felt across global markets, including industries outside of electronics. This is hopefully only the beginning of this movement away from cobalt, which will continue as investors and companies become more aware of the issues, and seek out alternative methods of obtaining battery materials.