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Cobalt-Free Car Batteries – Designing a Better Future for EVs

Updated: Aug 6, 2018

This is a featured guest post from Giles Kirkland. Giles Kirkland is an environmentally conscious car expert with passion for combining the newest green technologies with healthy lifestyle. He enjoys sharing his knowledge with other drives and sustainable living enthusiasts. You can find his articles at Oponeo and on Twitter.

With the improvements in today’s technology, electric cars are no longer a thing of the future and major players like Tesla and Formula E have been investing in them more and more.

But they cause a lot of concern as the questions arise about the impact of electric vehicles on the environment. In recent years, there have been extensive efforts to overcome environmental challenges before introducing EVs for public use.

Some of the main concerns are the car manufacturing processes and the procedure through which electricity is produced to recharge the batteries of the vehicle. Another important element is the nature of the batteries themselves as this directly impacts the general environmental friendliness of electric cars. In case of batteries, the main cause of concern has been the use of Li-ion battery, which requires cobalt to work.

What is cobalt?

Cobalt is an important metal, a by-product from the mining of nickel and copper. It was discovered by Georg Brandt, a Swedish chemist, back in 1739 and has been used for ages in various manufacturing processes. Many high intensity cutting tools and strong magnets are produced using this chemical element. In case of Li-ion batteries, it acts as a cathode and this makes it an extremely popular energy source for EVs.

The Problems With Cobalt

Commercially speaking, cobalt is not really a preferred choice for Li-ion battery manufacturers because of the high costs of its extraction and processing. Hence, many manufacturers have been looking for ways to replace the material, though this has not been fully achieved yet.

The supply of cobalt has been another issue as it is expected to reach critically low levels by 2050. This leads to an even greater need to replace this element as a power source. This is also a reason for increase in cobalt prices which have more than doubled only in the past year.

From socio-political and environmental viewpoints, cobalt needs to be replaced as soon as possible. Its mining process is extremely unhealthy and keeps the workers at great risk. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long-time exposure to the element during mining processes can lead to many health problems including severe lung diseases.

Latest Developments

With so many factors going against the use of cobalt, it is pretty clear that an alternative should be developed for the car batteries production. Panasonic Corp, Tesla’s cell supplier, informed that they have been working on developing vehicle batteries that would not require cobalt to work efficiently. Their ultimate aim is to completely eliminate the use of cobalt in the near future.

Panasonic and Tesla have been working to develop the Model S batteries, which greatly reduced cobalt content. Their latest generation of battery cells are the Model 3 batteries for which they claim to have the highest density cells ever introduced for vehicles while using only trace amounts of Cobalt.

How Does This Work?

While Panasonic have not provided details on how they plan to develop cobalt-free car batteries, they may pursue some of the promising technologies that are available.

For instance, advancements in chemistry like the production of lithium-iron phosphate might not require any cobalt at all. Similarly, certain elements require much less cobalt or might even enable to eliminate it, like in case of lithium-manganese spinel and lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide.

However, achieving this goal will not be as easy and many challenges will come up - from finding the right balance of safety and stability to considering the lifespan of the elements. Before introducing these alternatives for commercial use, it will be essential to address all these technical issues and tackle them appropriately.

One promising option is the development of solid-state lithium battery which will not require any cobalt to work in electric vehicles. The costs and risks related to these are still unclear, though.

So Are Cobalt-Free Batteries the Future?

It is evident that cobalt batteries do not have a bright future as they are not just getting extremely expensive and we may run out of them soon. This makes them a non-viable solution both ethically and environmentally.

There definitely exists a great hope and scope for cobalt-free batteries, especially when major players like Panasonic are making significant advancements in the field. Finally, in the electric vehicle industry, success is based on sustainability to a great extent, which pushes the need for such research further.