Cobalt is at the center of modern day lithium-ion battery technology. Batteries without cobalt are unstable, but the majority of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC is a country with an unstable government and internal strife. Child labor is said to be used to mine for cobalt. These are not traits that end-users of battery technology want attached to their purchase. In the Financial Times, Henry Sanderson explains the work of Michael Zimmerman to replace cobalt, and just how important it is to do so. He writes:
In a laboratory on an industrial park an hour’s drive outside Boston, Tufts professor Michael Zimmerman is hoping a material he invented in his basement can help solve a crisis facing the electric car industry — which has inadvertently tied its fortunes to one of the poorest and least stable countries in the world.
In between his teaching, Mr Zimmerman runs start-up Ionic Materials, whose battery material could mark the future for the car industry as it races to go electric after a century of producing petrol cars. His hope is that his homegrown prototype could pave the way for a new generation of batteries that does not use cobalt, a silver-grey metal, more than 60 per cent of which is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Backed by highly respected computer scientist and investor Bill Joy, who spent years searching for the perfect battery, Ionic counts the Renault Nissan Mitsubishi carmaker alliance, Hyundai and French oil company Total among its shareholders.
“The world wants to electrify vehicles,” Mr Zimmerman says in his office across the car park from a shopping mall. “I’ve never seen such a massive industry say [it wants] to completely switch technologies. Every single company, government and country — they all want to do it worldwide.”
The list of Ionic’s backers reflects increasing concerns among carmakers over current battery technology and its reliance on the DRC. Cobalt supply is dominated by a handful of mining companies, including Switzerland-based Glencore, or mined by hand and sold to Chinese traders in the country. Child labour is common, according to human rights groups.
In other words, the product that is the shining hope of the new economy is — for the time being — highly dependent on some of the most-criticised practices of the old industrial economy.
Read more here.
Jeremy Jones, CFA
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