The ascending demand for battery has also invigorated the demand in mining, where the rights and interests of labors have become a major issue, apart from the impact on the natural ecology and water sources. With the concatenating controversies on the natural environment, labors, and human rights, scientists are working hard with manufacturers on seeking for better alternative solutions, such as the research and development of lithium ion batteries that contain no precious metal cobalt.
The cathode of lithium ion batteries is formed by lithium, nickel, and precious metal cobalt, where cobalt serves as a critical role in the performance of batteries, and occupies more than half of the material cost. However, the particular metal has been involved in the controversy of human rights for a prolonged period.
59% of cobalt in the world come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has been involved with issues of sweatshops and child labors, making it the “blood diamond” of the battery industry. US non-profit international rights advocating organization International Rights Advocates represented 14 Congolese families at the end of last year, and sued a total of 5 companies, including Tesla, Apple, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Microsoft, and Dell, at the US District Court for the District of Columbia, as they believe that these tech giants have the ability and responsibility in improving the environment of the supply chain.
Scientists and manufacturers have also made minor improvement. Take IBM for instance, the company is currently researching and developing a battery that extracts raw materials using sea water, and contains no cobalt or other heavy metals. In order to elevate the transparency in the supply chain of cobalt, there are manufacturers that have started adopting the certification of the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), and work with local mining cooperatives by managing orders and procurement using block chain, whereas automotive manufacturers like GM and Tesla are also planning to reduce the cobalt content in batteries, where the latter is even thinking to release Model 3 adopted with cobalt-less batteries (LFP) in China.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is currently studying a new type of cathode (positive electrode) named NFA, which stands for nickel, iron, and aluminum, and is also the derivative of “lithium nickelate”. NFA has been under the spot light for a prolonged period, though past studies have yet to locate the optimal formula. Ilias Belharouak, person in charge of the research, pointed out that the focus had been placed on the materials of “lithium nickelate” in the past, however, its structure and the electrochemically instability is a major issue, for which the team has replaced nickel with iron and aluminum to enhance the stability of the electrode.
The research team believes that both iron and aluminum are eco-friendly materials of cost effectiveness and sustainable development, while the study has also conformed to the anticipation, where 88% of the capacity is preserved after 100 cycles of circulation. The pouch cell produced by the NFA cathode is also adequate in performance, though there is still room for improvement in stability, with 72% of capacity maintained after 200 cycles of charging and discharging.
Even though this is merely a preliminary study without a confirmed schedule on real applications in the market, the new progress in terms of the design and study for the reduction in the usage of rare materials is definitely heading towards the right direction for cobalt-less batteries. The research team pointed out that this design facilitates easy integration, and can be adopted by cathode plants all around the world in the future.
Belharouak believes that the study on the performance of charging and discharging from NFA cathode has pointed out that cathodes with and without cobalt generate similar electrochemical reactions, and provide enough specific capacity that is able to fulfill the requirements of energy density for batteries.
(Cover photo source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory)