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Driving beyond cobalt for EV battery technology

Author : Mike Kultgen, Analog Devices

28 July 2022

Today, most lithium-ion batteries use the chemical element cobalt as a foundation for their cathode material (the portion of the lithium-ion cell which determines storage capacity). Cobalt cathode cells provide longer-range performance and lower difficulty in charge measurement and management, when compared to other chemistries. However, the mining of cobalt has long been a hotly contested topic...

As electric vehicles (and electrification technology) grow in popularity among consumers and ecosystem players, a greater focus has been placed on ethical and sustainable operations and processes throughout the value chain. 

Ecosystem players are looking to double down on the shifting trends toward sustainability by implementing more ethical standards throughout the battery life cycle – from mining practices to second-life batteries.

But cobalt poses an ethical quandary for EV battery technology...

Approximately 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The mining of cobalt in the DRC has been linked to child labour practices, unsafe mining conditions and the mistreatment of miners, as well as other violations. 

As the electrification ecosystem looks to embrace both social and environmental sustainability, interest has grown in both reduced-cobalt battery chemistries (NMC and NCA) and cobalt-free battery chemistries like lithium iron phosphate (LFP). Many manufacturers are welcoming such a move. In fact, Tesla has plans to accelerate its path to sustainable energy by making high-energy cells with less or no cobalt.

LFP batteries are proven in production, having been used in the industry for over 10 years, and are fully supported as the primary technology of choice by leading OEMs. However, cobalt-based chemistries deliver 10 to 20 percent more energy density resulting in a longer range per charge. 

But with this added performance comes an added risk, as cobalt’s lower flash point – compared to LFPs – poses greater risk for battery fires. In addition, LFP batteries can be manufactured at a lower cost and are more efficient at handling safety hazards like punctures or thermal runaway issues. The high power capability of LFPs also enables faster charging.

EV manufacturers are looking to use today’s battery technologies in higher-priced, higher-performance (range) vehicles in their fleet, while leveraging LFPs in their lower range vehicles. These lower range vehicles can be delivered to the public at a much more affordable price point due to the cost savings provided by eliminating cobalt. 

While LFPs offer a cheaper sticker price and safer operation than cobalt, its chemistry is the most difficult to measure battery charge accurately, due to a flatter discharge curve.

This is where Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI) and its battery management systems (BMS) solutions can help.

According to ADI, it produces “the industry’s most accurate battery state-of-charge measurement”. The accuracy of ADI’s BMS solutions greatly reduces the burden placed on automotive manufacturers, by providing a technology that can effectively manage the state of charge demands of LFPs, thus unlocking the potential cost and safety benefits LFPs can provide to the industry. In addition, LFPs’ higher power density and longer life cycle, as well as its lower cost of operation over a wider temperature range, make it ideal for battery second-life applications like energy storage.

Benefits of zero cobalt

To summarise, the benefits of zero cobalt are as follows:

? No child or forced labour

? Low-cost structure

? Immune to thermal runaway

? Ideal for entry-level electric vehicles  

“Zero cobalt is a powerful, key piece of the sustainable future for automotive,” says Mike Kultgen, General Manager, Battery Management Systems at Analog Devices.

Ultimately, LFPs will drive accelerated consumer adoption of EVs by reducing the price barriers to EV ownership. Currently, 51 percent of an EV’s sticker price is related to the battery. 

In addition, a move away from a heavy reliance on cobalt will push the industry to a more ethical supply chain, while the benefits that LFPs offer translate into a more environmentally sustainable battery ecosystem and greater efficiency for battery second life applications.

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