There is a viral video clip going around of Joe Rogan interviewing an author named Siddharth Kara. He has a new book coming out this month called Cobalt Red. He tells Rogan about the horrific conditions in the cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He says three quarters of the world’s cobalt supply comes from this region and that there is an expansion of this mining mostly driven by the rise of electric cars. In passing he mentions that all the big cobalt mines are controlled by the Chinese. There’s another shorter lesser viewed clip where they go into more detail about China. By an uncanny coincidence this country was also the scene of a major colonial period of exploitation for rubber a century ago instigated by King Leopold II of Belgium. The horrors and genocide are chronicled in Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost.
In following the topic of cobalt I started running across claims that half of Teslas new cars are being made with lithium-ion batteries that contain no cobalt. I also found claims that teardowns of Tesla’s new 4680 batteries introduced on battery day contain nickel and cobalt in their cathodes just like they always have. So are there lithium-ion batteries that do not contain cobalt? The answer is an unequivocal yes and they are being used in some of Tesla’s cars. They are called lithium iron phosphate batteries and are often designated LFPs (for Lithium Ferris Phosphate). Tesla’s old batteries can be dubbed NCAs (for the Nickel Cobalt Aluminum in their cathodes). Others are dubbed NMC (Nickel Manganese Cobalt). Tesla started using LFP batteries probably about a year ago in their model 3s made in China as described in this Now You Know Clip. They are made in Tesla’s giga-factory in China by two Chinese companies. They are also being imported and installed in Model 3s made in the U.S. They have a different form from Tesla’s ribbon batteries which are rolled into cylinders. They are called prismatic and are box shaped. There is another lithium-ion form called pouch which GM uses.
This video gives a very detailed and fairly comprehensible description of the chemistry involved. It’s long, but gives very clear explanations of the advantages and disadvantages between LFPs and NCAs. I’ll list some highlights:
2-6 minutes: A description of the crystal structures of the cathodes of LFPs and NCAs with very clear graphics that show intricate details.
6 minutes: It’s shown how carbon coating and doping with magnesium greatly raise the capacity of LFP.
7 minutes: Explains the effect of LFP’s lower voltage.
8-9 minutes: LFP’s flat voltage curve is explained. This makes it hard to measure the level of charge.
10 minutes: Low particle size, carbon coating and magnesium doping made LFP viable.
11-12 minutes: Shows how LFPs crystal structure is more stable.
13-14 minutes: Describes how LFP is more fire resistant.
15-16 minutes: Shows tables of the gravimetric and volumetric differences in energy densities. The differences in the pack densities can be reduced since LFPs need less robust packing material.
17-19 minutes: Shows tables explaining how vehicles are affected.
20-22 minutes: Discusses LFP poor low temperature performance and remedies.
23-26 minutes: Discusses LFP’s potential for longer cycle life..
27-28 minutes: Discusses costs and mineral constraints.
29 minutes: Shows a summary table.
30-31 minutes: Expresses enthusiasm for LFPs.
I’m left with the impression that LFPs have a very bright future. LFPs are going to have a lower energy density of around 20% gravimetric and 30% volumetric at the pack level, but they will not be subject to nickel and cobalt bottlenecks or the stigma of cobalt mining practices. Their cathodes will certainly be cheaper. They also appear to have important fire resistance advantages. Nickel and cobalt batteries will probably still have a place in high end, high performance vehicles.
Most of my research for this posts is from various YouTube channels and I’m finding a lot of enthusiasm for LFP batteries. There also appears to be lots of plans by car makers to switch to LFPs. Here’s a video about Ford’s plan to use LFPs that also gives a good brief overview of the technology:
There’s no Moore’s Law for batteries, but there’s lots of enthusiasm and entrepreneurship that is similar to the microcomputer and internet revolutions. Lots of car companies are introducing new electric models as are motorcycle and semi truck makers. I suspect in the short run they are all headed on a collision course with a brick wall of commodities inflation. What I would like to suggest for policy makers is that making batteries is an industrial activity that requires lots of energy and materials (particularly minerals) and that they should take a hard look at where these come from. They likely have romanticized notions about free electricity coming from wind and solar with batteries smoothing out the intermittency. Industrial activity requires huge amounts of reliable energy. Lithium-ion batteries amount to expensive and limited backup for wind and solar. They would also compete for lithium and the various ions needed for EV batteries. Fracked gas would make a better industrial backup and even primary source of energy for battery factories. Trucks and mining equipment are going to need lots of diesel fuel to supply these battery factories. The decision to cancel Keystone should be reviewed. Wind and solar use lots more materials that batteries compete for than does nuclear. Nuclear is a long term, clean, carbon free energy source and that it takes a long time to build means it won’t be rapidly requiring a lot of those materials and energy that battery factories will be in the same market for. In the long run, nuclear plants provide huge amounts of constantly available electricity, which is something a lot of EVs are going to need.
As for cobalt, it is not intrinsically evil. It’s a vital mineral used for lots of things besides consumer electronics and EV batteries. The main problem is a lack of development and political chaos that’s left the Democratic Republic of the Congo vulnerable to warlords and exploitation by a totalitarian regime.
Picking on Tesla was indeed a red flag, and what I noted immediately was the failure to mention cobalt in the fairy fart machines (wind power: https://www.innovationnewsnetwork.com/how-cobalt-is-powering-green-technologies/24638/). As to the points made in this article though, dismissing the practices in the Congo as being down to ‘warlords and exploitation by a totalitarian regime’ is to also dismiss the false claims of the end user manufacturers and the industry body (https://www.cobaltinstitute.org/essential-cobalt-2/powering-the-green-economy/renewable-energy/), and so fails to address the blatant hypocrisy.
As to the possible solutions for batteries, long held discussions with researchers at Warwick University revealed that any genuine attempt is continuously hindered by vested interests, command economy diktats, and pure delusion.
Hmmm, … a glowing article about the Cobalt Institute and an article by the Cobalt Institute? Am I being targeted by a well funded, concerted effort from big cobalt?
The article I have put up from the Cobalt Institute is example of how they are lying, so no, no promotion from me.
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By the way, only marginally O/T, thanks for mentioning Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost – well worth a read, IMO.
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It is infuriating that the conditions in the Congo are blamed on Western industrialisation and capitalism, when they are caused precisely by a lack of both.
If the politicians of the DRC weren’t thieving crooks, then it would be a matter of months before western companies got rid of the inefficient mining by hand and started doing it properly. But who is going to invest in a country which will merely steal everything?
Traditionally the problem was solved by making it a banana republic. That is the mining company owned the politicians as well as the mines. But that has also been deemed immoral, so there are precious few ways out of this hole for the Congolese.
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In their Global EV Outlook 2022 the IEA says
“Lithium iron phosphate battery does not need nickel or cobalt but comes with lower energy density and is therefore better suited to shorter range vehicles”
They further note that half of all EV models are SUVs and require larger batteries to travel the same distance
Mark Mills reviews Cobalt Red:
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Interesting piece on a possible phosphate bottleneck for LFP batteries. Has an unsourced claim that almost half of (new?) EV batteries are LFP:
Article is sort of long with lots of technical details:
Hat/tip to Doomberg for retweeting: