The dirty industry of mining for some of the earth's most precious elements could be the largest obstacle to a clean energy revolution, but a clutch of companies with replacements for those metals are looking to shift manufacturing into high gear.
A recent article in The New York Times, underscored the depth of the problem.
Mining for cobalt, one of the critical components for manufacturing the lithium ion batteries crucial to renewable energy storage and the electric vehicle revolution, is rife with corruption and child labor practices banned by most developed (and developing) economies.
“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 told CNBC earlier this year.
With the additional complication of the stranglehold that China has over the supply chain for the materials at the heart of renewable energy production, finding alternatives is more than just a moral imperative, but a strategic one for U.S
That's why investors are pouring billions of dollars into battery technologies that don't require cobalt.
Companies like Panasonic, one of the largest battery manufacturers in the world (and a key supplier to Tesla) unveiled a new battery in January that contained less than 5% of cobalt, and plans to have battery completely free of the element by 2025.
“Reducing cobalt makes it harder for us to manufacture, but ultimately does reduce the negative environmental impacts of batteries and reduce the cost,” Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology at Panasonic Energy of North America, told The Observer at the time.
A clutch of new lithium metal battery startups like QuantumScape, SES and SolidPower have raised at least $2 billion from private investors and on public markets to bring cheaper, safer batteries to market. But in the near-term those batteries will be dependent on cobalt, according to one person familiar with the market.
These well-capitalized companies also have second and third generation batteries that won't contain cobalt or nickel under development.
In October, Solid Power received a $12.5 million grant from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (a technology investment initiative run by U.S. intelligence agencies that's akin to the famous DARPA program which gave birth to the internet). That money will be used to help Solid Power develop a nickel and cobalt-free battery.
“Iron sulfide cathodes have been a focus area at Solid Power dating back to research at the University of Colorado Boulder,” said Josh Buettner-Garrett, Chief Technology Officer at Solid Power. “Not only is the material low-cost, but it can also enable long calendar life applications while delivering extremely high cell-level specific energies that liquid-containing batteries are unlikely to be able to achieve even with a lithium metal anode.”
Meanwhile investors have other innovative businesses waiting in the wings which already remove expensive metals from the battery equation. Lyten, Sion Power, and Zeta Energy are working on lithium sulfur energy storage technologies.
Sion Power just raised capital from the engine technology specialist, Cummins.
“Our customers rely on Cummins to provide the most robust electric powertrains in the world. We need battery technologies that will meet the performance and cost expectations for tough, commercial vehicle duty cycles," said Amy Davis, Vice President at Cummins and President of the company’s New Power segment, in a statement.
Under the agreement, announced Tuesday, Sion Power will engage in a multi-year development program to design and supply large-format lithium metal battery cells for use in Cummins battery packs, the company said in a statement. The batteries developed by Cummins will be integrated in its electric powertrains for commercial vehicles.
Meanwhile, Lyten has plans of its own to test its lithium sulfur batteries with the world's biggest automakers. The company announced itself -- and its batteries -- earlier this year. And is already working with five automakers on the incorporation of its batteries into 2025 or 2026 model vehicles.
“We have begun a generational transformation from internal combustion engines to BEV’s. We’re confident that Lyten’s breakthrough battery platform will accelerate the mass consumer adoption of electric vehicle ownership due to the performance, range, and safety improvements of our LytCell EV batteries,” said Dan Cook, CEO and a Co-Founder of Lyten, in a statement. “By also delivering the most environmentally responsible battery with a USMCA-compliant supply chain, we believe Lyten will enable automakers to more confidently execute their announced electrification roadmaps.”
The quietest of the bunch, so far, is Zeta Energy. Based off of research from Rice University in Houston, Zeta has assembled a team including a chief technology officer who previously worked at Cambridge University's graphene research center.
While investors (including FootPrint Coalition) are backing these technologies to find ways out of the cobalt conundrum, there's no guarantee that these companies will be successful. Indeed, the startup landscape is littered with battery companies that failed to give markets a charge.
Earlier this year, Oxis Energy, whose investors included the French energy giant Total and chemical companies Sasol and Umicore filed for bankruptcy.
Still, the opportunity is too large for venture investors, who make riskier bets on companies, to pass up.
"If you really want to get [batteries] into the mainstream, not just in cars but in the electrical grid you need to bring the costs down," said one executive at a lithium sulfur battery startup. "You’re never going to get rapid wholesale adoption without it. And China controls 80% of the world’s cobalt and 50% of the world’s nickel."
Lithium sulfur, the entrepreneur said, is the solution. "Anywhere there’s a petrochemical industry we can take sulfur and we can take petrochemicals and we can… Turn the bad into good… we’re taking sulfur that's on the liability side of the balance sheet and move that to the asset side [to enable renewable energy adoption]."