May 17, 2022

Cobalt Blue | BOSS Magazine

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The dangers of extracting a key component from batteries and what manufacturers can do about it

We are in the midst of an energy transition in the automotive industry. One by one, major automakers are pledging to phase out gas-powered cars in favor of electric vehicles. Reducing emissions is a major step in the fight against climate change. Like gasoline-powered vehicles, electric cars depend on natural resources. Instead of petroleum and internal combustion engines, they use batteries. To meet the demand, we are going to need a lot of batteries. Typically, these are lithium-ion batteries, which require lithium, nickel, iron, aluminum, manganese, and cobalt, among other ingredients.

These are all, like oil, finite resources. And sometimes, like oil, they come from parts of the world with difficult political situations. Notoriously volatile in value, cobalt is currently more expensive than all of the other ingredients combined. Most of the world’s supply of battery-grade cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which comes with its own set of complications. With that in mind, some automakers are looking to other options.

Congo-Cobalt

Congo’s annual cobalt production is about 100,000 metric tons, or about 70% of what the world produces. To illustrate the big gap between the Congo and everywhere else, Russia is number 2 with around 6,000 metric tons. The Congo is really the place for cobalt, and as you can imagine the atmosphere resembles the gold rush eras of yesteryear and more recent diamond mining. Competition is fierce and working conditions can be brutal.

Working children were forced working in mines, often with few safety precautions. Mine collapses and other accidents are commonplace. With so much money to be made, diggers often sneak into mining sites and dig their own holes, seeking to smuggle minerals out. Unauthorized and hastily undertaken digging makes already dangerous conditions even more dangerous and causes more cave-ins.

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The large multinational corporations that account for 70% or more of Congo’s cobalt production are controlled by Chinese investors, as is four-fifths of the cobalt refining industry.

“China, Inc. has realized how important cobalt is,” former Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg once said. “They left and blocked the supply.”

Companies feeling political pressure on one side to raise their ethical standards and do less business with China on the other side have started looking for other options. Meanwhile, the demand for batteries for electric vehicles – not to mention other electronic devices – continues to rise.

New batteries

We have already seen with the shortage of semiconductors what can happen when the demand for a resource integral to the technology sector far exceeds the supply. Automakers have experienced production delays due to a lack of chips, as have makers of cellphones, laptops and other electronics, at a time when more and more products we counts require chips.

Facing similar pitfalls with cobalt, manufacturers are looking for ways to make their products without it. Samsung and Panasonic are testing battery designs that don’t use it. In the automotive industry, Tesla uses lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries in its standard Model 3 and Model Y sold in China and is preparing to use them in all its Model 3 and Model Y. Ford and Volkswagen are also exploring LFP options, which do not require cobalt or nickel.

“LFP batteries are cheaper and safer. With this chemistry, you can charge your vehicle’s battery up to 100% and not worry so much about long-term degradation. The other thing is that these batteries are really easy to recycle. And sourcing raw materials for those is easier to do, ethically,” Taylor Ogan, CEO of Snow Bull Capital, told CNBC.

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The disadvantage of LFPs is that they are less energy dense and therefore cannot go as far on a single charge as lithium-ion batteries. Again, Chinese companies have the corner of the market, but US-based startups such as Sparkz and texpower work on cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries.

Our next energywhose Gemini 001 battery recently drove 752 miles in a Tesla Model S without recharging, is also on the case.

“We want to eliminate both nickel and cobalt, but we don’t want to give up energy density,” CEO and founder Mujeeb Ijaz told Reuters. “We aim to reinvent battery chemistry as well as cell architecture.”

Other methods

There are alternatives to mining more cobalt and other materials. One is recycling. swedish company Northvolt – which is partly owned by BMW, Volkswagen and Goldman Sachs – announced in 2021 that it had made a lithium-ion cell using 100% recycled cobalt, nickel and manganese.

“What we have shown here is a clear path to closing the loop on batteries and that there is a sustainable and environmentally preferable alternative to conventional mining to source raw materials for battery production,” Northvolt environmental director Emma Nehrenheim told Recharge. “The recycling process can recover up to 95% of a battery’s metals to a level of purity comparable to that of fresh virgin material.”

Northvolt is building a plant that is expected to start operations in 2023 and recycle 125,000 tonnes of batteries per year. It aims to mass-produce batteries made with 50% recycled materials by 2030.

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Another alternative is to avoid batteries altogether. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles such as the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai do just that, with water as the only emission. The hydrogen fuel cell market is expected to approach $14 billion over the next five years, and several automakers are researching and designing HFCVs. Not only would the widespread adoption of HFCV reduce the reliance on cobalt for vehicle batteries, it would also reduce the strain on the power grid.

“A hydrogen fuel cell park puts zero tailpipe emissions and also gets you off the grid,” said Scott Moe of HydroFlotte Boss said. “Hydrogen has a very, very bright future.”

If it also helps prevent the carnage of cobalt mining. It is a solid future indeed.