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Nature editorial calls for reduction in cobalt in transportation electrification to address scarcity

An editorial in the journal Nature says that the reduction and elimination of cobalt in EV batteries must remain a pressing need to continue to address its scarcity.

Cobalt is currently the most expensive component used in mainstream passenger EV batteries due to its limited availability. The supply of Co is heavily geographically polarized, with the Democratic Republic of Congo providing over 60% of the mined cobalt market volume1. However, political instability in the country has created a situation in which child labour and environmental damage in Co mining go unimpeded, raising significant ethical concerns about the widespread use of Co in supply chains.

… Over the past decade, two oxide families called layered nickel–manganese–cobalt (NMC) and nickel–cobalt–aluminium (NCA) oxides have dominated the cathode material of choice for passenger EV batteries, primarily because they provide superior energy density over alternatives and thus long drive range. The presence of Co in both the oxides is crucial to maintain their structural stability during battery charge and discharge. Any attempt to reduce or eliminate Co content must therefore address the structural degradation problem while maintaining the capacity of the cathode.

The editorial notes that much progress has been made with different approaches to reducing cobalt content as well in alternative chemistries that are cobalt free. The editorial also noted that Tesla’s recently announced tab-less cell design (earlier post) could, via the increased energy density, make LFP batteries more competitive.

Admittedly, the battery industry won’t change overnight. NMC and NCA are likely to maintain their supremacy for the foreseeable future, especially when high energy density is needed. Meanwhile, Co reduction and elimination must remain a pressing need to continue to address its scarcity. With many diverse and exciting developments in tackling the Co issues, we are optimistic about lower-Co and Co-free perspectives. Moreover, the challenge associated with Co reminds us of the need for early consideration of the full product life cycle, including raw material extraction and refinery, fabrication and processing, distribution, operation, and recycling. Ultimately, new energy technology must be designed from the outset for its sustainability.

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