Electric car research boosted by cobalt-free battery

Electric car research boosted by cobalt-free battery

August 1, 2019
Marcia González

UT Austin Engineer aims to eliminate costly, finite cobalt from batteries

The elimination of cobalt, an expensive chemical component currently required to power our smartphones and laptops, from lithium-ion batteries has been the goal of Texas Engineer Arumugam Manthiram for much of his career.

When paired with a graphite anode (the terminal on a battery through which an electric current enters), a lithium cobalt oxide cathode (the terminal the electric current leaves through) offers high energy density, making the lithium-ion battery the most widely used power source. The problem, however, is that cobalt is both finite and expensive, and existing lithium-ion battery cathodes are comprised of more than 40% cobalt.

Manthiram, who has been a leading researcher in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering for decades, has demonstrated a cathode composition requiring only 6% of cobalt in a lithium-ion battery. Now, through a new US$3 million collaborative project funded by the US Department of Energy, Manthiram is aiming to not only demonstrate his low-cobalt battery technology in a large cell – the industry standard – but also develop a lithium-ion battery that requires no cobalt whatsoever while still maintaining the same energy density.

“This would be a major step forward for large-scale deployment of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles,” commented Manthiram.

Demand for battery metals such as cobalt has surged in recent years because of the growing global appetite for electric vehicles. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK, one ton of cobalt was priced at around US$32,000 in 2017. Today the price is closer to US$80,000.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that industry will be heavily interested in this project. UT Austin is leading the effort in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado and LG Chem in Michigan.

While Texas Engineering already has a globally recognized reputation for leading battery technology, Manthiram believes the facilities at the Texas Materials Institute played a pivotal role in obtaining this Department of Energy funding. “We now have world-class facilities at our disposal, and we have tools and equipment that give us the capability to conduct cutting-edge materials science and engineering research,” said Manthiram. “I expect many more innovations in energy storage research to come out of UT in the coming years.”

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