The Latest Challenges For Automotive Batteries

There’s no questioning the fact that electric cars are the new ‘it’ thing, especially with major players like Tesla and Formula E in the scene. But this is also why recently the debates have been shifting more and more towards their environmental impact.

There are definitely many challenges that need to be addressed before electric cars can be declared as a completely green alternative to fossil fuels. For now, some of the major concerns for environmentalists have been the manufacturing process of the vehicles and the processes through which their batteries are charged. In fact, the batteries themselves are a greater cause of concern, mainly because of a key ingredient that lets the Li-ions battery generate electricity, i.e. cobalt.

Red Tesla Model S (Image: T. Larkum)

Red Tesla Model S (Image: T. Larkum)

Discovering Cobalt

If you are just hearing about cobalt for the first time then you should be surprised to know how often it is used. Cobalt is the name of a chemical element that was discovered in 1739 by a Swedish chemist, Georg Brandt. This metal is silvery-white in appearance and it’s mostly produced as a by-product of nickel and copper mining.

Cobalt is used in a number of everyday products such as paints, medicines, powerful magnets, cutting tools, smartphones and even in some very basic items such as pottery. But  the use that concerns us here is its use in car batteries. Cobalt, combined with other elements produces cathodes, which are then used in lithium-ion batteries – a major component of electric vehicles.


The Challenges

In recent years, cobalt has actually been a major cause of speed bumps on the road to developing the ideal electric vehicle. There are numerous economic and ethical issues that have surfaced regarding the use of cobalt.

The price of cobalt is set to rise as its supplies are dwindling. They are predicted to hit critically low levels  by 2050, according to the the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (HIU) in Germany. Hopefully, this will lead to an increased need for manufacturers to replace its use with a new technology.

From an ethical, political and environmental stance, it’s seen as an ingredient that needs replacing, fast. The unearthing process is infamous for being  unhealthy for miners, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that “chronic exposure to cobalt-containing hard metal (dust or fume) can result in a serious lung disease called ‘hard metal lung disease’”.


Positive Advancements

With so many things going against its use, it’s pretty clear that battery manufacturers have to look for alternative sources to power their car batteries. A lot of advancements have already been made and many positive signs for the future have been observed.

For instance, Tesla has been working with its battery cell suppliers, Panasonic, to produce batteries that would work with significantly lower levels of Cobalt and their ultimate aim is to completely eliminate its use.


How Practical is This?

While they’ve announced their goal, Panasonic and Tesla have not exactly made it clear how they plan on achieving it. However, there are a number of promising technologies around that they may choose from.

One option could be the use of lithium-manganese spinel or lithium-iron phosphate that might work without cobalt. However, certain concerns regarding the feasibility of these alternatives and their cost-effectiveness when it comes to using them for commercial vehicles still exist. There are also some other alternatives like solid-state lithium batteries, which are very promising, but their production processes are still in the testing phase.

The only thing that seems clear right now is that cobalt is not a sustainable element and thus it is not a viable option for future production of electrical vehicles. The success of both the ordinary and autonomous car industry is based heavily on sustainability, which rules out the use of an element that is likely to run out in future. It’s important for investors like Tesla to continue their research and experiments to produce greener car batteries in order to make the common use of electric cars a possibility.

Giles Kirkland

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