It may come as a shock to know that 50% of all cobalt produced in the world is used in lithium-based batteries, the same batteries that power nearly all handheld devices and laptops and much tech-based items. Cobalt is mainly mined in the Congo, and is mined by hand the majority of the time – sometimes even by child labourers. Many big companies including Apple have admitted to sourcing cobalt from the Congo, leading to plenty of public outcry, but recently a study was published in the journal Nature about a collaboration between scientists at the UC Berkeley, Argonne National Lab, MIT and UC Santa Cruz that may help in the reduction of cobalt use.
“To deal with the resource issue of cobalt, you have to go away from this layeredness in cathodes, Disordering cathodes has allowed us to play with a lot more of the periodic table.” Says Ceder (Ceder’s lab), his lab discovered a way that cathodes can maintain a high energy density without layers that cobalt needs. Using a process called fluorine doping, the scientists incorporated a large amount of manganese in the cathode, meaning more manganese ions with the proper charge allows the cathodes to hold more lithium ions which increases the capacity of the battery.
This new technology is in early stages and needs plenty of testing and needs scaling up to make sure it can be used in mainstream application, e.g. in mobile phones etc. Cedar recognises that even if this tech doesn’t make it to mainstream use, the research gone into creating this tech will open up more ideas for design of the cathodes. “You can pretty much use any element in the periodic table now because we’ve shown that cathodes don’t have to be layered” Cedar said, claiming this is the exciting part.