EV Makers Look to Wind Down Cobalt

November 23, 2021

New York Times had a piece discussing the disturbing circumstances around cobalt mining, particularly in Africa. Gizmodo followed with the breathless headline “Cobalt is the New Oil”.
Really?
I think “Electrons are the new oil” would actually be a better analogy – but never mind.
Cobalt is important as a component of Lithium ion Batteries, hence, easy pickings for the “solutions denial” crowd to talk about the “problems” of clean energy.

Of course, as usual, there’s more to the story. Know what else cobalt is used for? Refining gasoline.

Chargesmart:

Anyway, while some have pointed fingers at EVs over ethics, no-one is without guilt and in a position to take the moral high ground on this one. This is due to the fact that cobalt is also used in the refinement of crude oil, which is used to make petrol, diesel, kerosene and pretty much any fossil fuel that you can think of. The process is called desulphurisation and cobalt is used to extract sulphur from crude oil (which is a good thing). All crude oils contain up to 2.5% sulphur. Burning this oil directly produces sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide. The biggest danger that these gasses pose to use is in the form of acid rain and we’ve seen the detrimental effects of that! Sulphur in crude oil also clogs up the catalytic converters of modern cars meaning that the exhaust gasses flow freely through the tailpipes rather than being purified in the catalytic converter. A cobalt catalyst is used to extract the sulphur from the crude oil, the sulphur is then converted to hydrogen sulphide which can then be converted into sulphuric acid and used in other industries. Desulphurisation uses a lot of cobalt, in fact, it is the biggest consumer of cobalt in the catalyst sector! But yes, the use of cobalt in rechargeable batteries is the largest use of the element, and this will grow if battery chemistry does not change.

But the industry isn’t just moving ahead to consume more cobalt. Leaders like Tesla and others are rapidly moving to design batteries which do not require as much or any cobalt in the future.

CNBC:

Lithium-ion batteries contain a number of different materials including lithium, nickel, aluminum, iron, manganese and cobalt. Of all these metals, cobalt is the most expensive. For the past four years, the average cost of cobalt was higher than the cost of all the other battery metals put together.

“For mass electrification to happen, there are lots of sentiments that cobalt needs to be eliminated or reduced to the bare minimum,” says Chibueze Amanchukwu, professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago.

The price of cobalt has also historically been very volatile. Part of this volatility is because cobalt is usually produced as a byproduct of nickel and copper mining, and therefore tied to the demand and price fluctuations of those metals. The mining and refining of cobalt is also geographically limited.

“The majority of the world’s battery-grade cobalt reserves are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the the mining of cobalt is associated with human rights abuses and child labor,” says Sam Adham, a senior powertrain research analyst at LMC Automotive.

Chinese 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. In light of the U.S.-China trade war, cobalt supply is in a precarious position for U.S. manufacturers.

Some cobalt-free batteries do already exist, but they require some trade-offs.

“There is already a viable cobalt-free battery and that is lithium iron phosphate or LFP. But the main downside of LFP is low energy density and therefore driving range,” says Adham.

Like with cobalt, the supply chain of lithium iron phosphate, or LFP, batteries is dominated by Chinese companies like BYD and Contemporary Amperex Technology Limited, or CATL. In an effort to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign countries, the U.S. Department of Energy released a national blueprint in June to help guide investment to develop domestic lithium battery manufacturing and support further R&D. Among its goals, the blueprint calls for eliminating cobalt from lithium batteries by 2030. Two U.S.-based start-ups, Sparkz and Texpower, say that they can help, though the companies have yet to prove out their technologies in electric vehicles.

5 Responses to “EV Makers Look to Wind Down Cobalt”

  1. neilrieck Says:

    When I first studied electronics back in the 1960s, I learned that there were two major categories in speaker design. In one design the voice coil was an AC electromagnet that interacted with a fixed-field DC electromagnet. In the second design the the voice coil interacted with a permanent magnet. Since energizing a DC electromagnet required additional power, you only saw these in older vacuum tube appliances (valves to you Brits). But with things like battery-powered transistor radios, permanent magnets were the only way to go (they are also used today to save power everywhere). Back then, the best industrial magnets were made from ALNICO. A made up word meant to represent the ingredients: Aluminum – Nickle – Cobalt.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alnico

    So it doesn’t matter what you read, Cobalt is not going away anytime soon, if ever.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    There is nothing especially intrinsically bad about mining cobalt, except that most of it is done in the DRC, effectively an impoverished, lawless state. So the cost of getting high enough production out of a more “civilized” source must be more than the cost of de-cobaltizing the tech.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Yes, so often when right wing trolls attack clean safe renewable energy, what they’re really attacking is the practice of capitalism. Whether it’s cobalt, rare earth metals, the failure of nukes around the world, the success of EVs and batteries… capitalism degrades everyone and everything until it’s as destructive as the worst parts of it. We’re faced with the choice of surrendering to that or stopping it at the source.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        It’s the practice of not giving a damn for (or even loathing) other people. A lot of the DRC mining comes from China chasing resources, and their oppression of and forced labor from Uyghurs is because they won’t play nice in Han society. Once you think of people as no better than oxen or donkeys, there’s no reason to value their lives or efforts as any more than what other livestock provide.

        Humans excel at not thinking about what happens out of sight from them once their needs and desires are met. Capital investment* unconstrained by
        laws or ethics, like dictators, can chew through people and environments like a hungry machine. So we constrain them, using organized social pressure, and then laws.

        _________
        *I own stocks and index funds.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          Yes, but…
          You know I’m not going to be satisfied with that.
          What I am is profoundly disappointed with people here who have paid no apparent attention to and gotten no apparent benefit from my years of attempts to educate, tiny bits at a time, about what motivates those in charge of the US and those who select them, about the deep connections between climate denial, Covid and other science-bashing, racism, fossil and nuclear fuel use and other nature destruction and issues. Unless a sizable number of people can understand those motivations, even if we fix the logistical GHG problem we will never solve the psycho-ecological crisis behind it, and it will destroy us (meaning civilization).


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