The global demand for lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries has taken off owing to the rapid market growth of electric vehicles and widening deployment of battery storage power plants. However, scientists around the world are continuing their search for better, cheaper, and greener material compositions for batteries. Presently, cathode materials used in Li-ion batteries contain cobalt, which is an expensive and rare metal. IBM Research recently announced that its battery research division has developed a battery that is completely free of cobalt and nickel. Instead, the alternative composition includes three materials that can be harvested from seawater and a new type of electrolyte.
The creation of this new battery is a joint effort by IBM Research, the car maker Mercedes-Benz, the electrolyte supplier Central Glass, and the battery maker Sidus. Their aim is to create a radically different battery technology that can achieve the same or higher level of performance while forgoing the use of toxic and costly metals such as cobalt and nickel. IBM Research has yet to disclose the names of the three special materials that appear to be abundantly available in seawater. There is also not much information about the new electrolyte other than having low flammability.
Besides being free of rare metals, this new kind of battery seems to be an improvement over the conventional Li-ion batteries in all respects: higher energy efficiency, faster charging, and lower cost. It takes less than five minutes to reach an 80% charge. In terms of performance, the battery developed by IBM Research and its partners has the power density of higher than 10,000W/L and the energy density of around 800Wh/L. In contrast, Li-ion batteries that are now on the market have energy densities ranging from 250 to 730Wh/L.
The growing demand for cobalt from the technology sector has also become an increasingly controversial issue because the main source of this metal is from poorly regulated mines in Central Africa. In fact, the Democratic Republic of Congo currently accounts for more than 60% of the global supply. Over the recent years, news has spread about accident and deaths involving child laborers working for next to nothing at these mines. Just on December 16, the NGO International Rights Advocate filed a class-action lawsuit against Tesla, Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Dell on behalf of 14 Congolese families whose children were killed or injured at cobalt mines. The five technology giants were charged for failing to investigate their supply chains for illegally and unethically sourced cobalt despite having the capacity to do so.
IBM Research stated that the combination of the three cathode materials from seawater and the low-flammable electrolyte is actually highly effective in suppressing the formation of lithium dendrites. Since lithium is a highly active element, its ions can easily deposit on the electrodes of the battery during charging and discharging. The uneven clumps of lithium ions eventually become dendrites, or tentacle-like growths inside the battery. Dendrites can pierce the separator of the battery, thereby increasing the risk of malfunction and fire. Battery scientists have for a long time tried to formulate some solutions to prevent dendrite growth. The alternative battery composition developed at the lab of IBM Research may be able to effectively tackle this problem.
At the moment, there is no clear schedule for the commercialization of the seawater battery. Hopefully, the continuing collaboration between IBM Research and its partners will lead to more good news for this technology in the near future.