Cobalt’s rise to six-digit territory seems inexorable as the hype around electric vehicle demand for battery materials shows no signs of cooling.
Despite a pullback this week, at $95,000 a tonne cobalt is up another 24% in 2018 as it builds on a more than fourfold increase in value from record lows early 2016. Batteries – mainly for cellphones – constitute 55% of cobalt demand at present, but is set to rise substantially as the world’s automakers move away from internal combustion engines.
Nickel, together with manganese and cobalt the crucial elements in batteries favoured by most of the world’s automakers, has also been swept up by the positive sentiment trading at $13,315 a tonne on Friday, up a third over the last 12 months. The rise is despite the fact that only 5% of nickel production goes into batteries and less than 1% in EV power plants.
Worries about supply is not only reflected in prices for battery materials but also the furious pace of research into new technologies to reduce loadings or find substitutions for pricey raw materials.
At the beginning of this year US researchers touted a breakthrough for lithium ion battery technology which replaces cobalt with iron, currently trading at a fraction of the price.
Now lithium sulphur batteries are being hailed as the future of the industry.
Lithium sulphur batteries have been studied extensively and is considered to be the natural evolution of lithium ion batteries, but at the moment the technology falls far short when it comes to size and recharging limitations due to sulphur’s instability.
In a study first published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, US researchers this week said they found a way around these shortcomings creating a lithium-sulphur battery that is cheaper, lighter, safer (won’t catch fire) and more efficient holding three to five times the charge of today’s lithium ion technology.
According to a report from Phys.org, a team led by Kyeongjae Cho, professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Texas, found that molybdenum, mainly used as an alloy in the steel industry, solves the problems associated with lithium sulphur batteries:
[Molybdenum] creates a material that adjusts the thickness of the coating when combined with two atoms of sulfur, a coating thinner than the silk of a spiderweb.
It improved stability and compensated for poor conductivity of sulfur, thus allowing for greater power density and making lithium-sulfur batteries more commercially viable.
Lithium sulphur batteries use a solid lithium metal anode and a carbon cathode, with no need for nickel or cobalt:
“This was what everyone was looking for, for a long time. That’s the breakthrough.
“We are taking this to the next step and will fully stabilize the material, and bring it to actual, practical commercial technology,” Cho said.