THE GOBLIN IN THE BATTERY
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 27, 2021
To deal with climate change and power the cars of tomorrow, we’ll need to solve the cobalt problem
Drake Bennett

Late in August, at a precisely specified point in the low Arctic, a geologist named Dave Freedman stood in a raw wind and a limitless expanse of tundra and began to thwack with a sledgehammer at a rock outcrop jutting up from the soil. Freedman, 29, works for a company called KoBold Metals, and the process that had brought him to this pair of GPS coordinates in Quebec’s far north was complex. But the rock had had its own journey. Before it was rock, it had been magma in the Earth’s mantle, part of a molten tongue tens of meters wide that had welled up as two tectonic plates spread apart 1.85 billion years ago. At first the magma had melted and eaten the layers of crust it flowed through, but, cooling as it rose, it eventually ran into resistance. The liquid pooled, like smoke along a ceiling, and then as the last of its heat bled out, solidified into a shelf of an igneous rock geologists call peridotite. Over the eons, it was lifted by tectonic collisions, tilted, folded, and broken. Glaciers ground it down. And then one day a helicopter descended from the sky and out jumped a slim, bearded man in Gore-Tex, with a high-visibility vest, a backpack, and a hammer.

After two ringing blows, a scone-size chunk of the outcrop broke off. Freedman hefted it up and blew on it. He grabbed the hand lens dangling from his vest and peered at the rock’s freshly exposed face, holding it a few inches from his own. The coarse grain was a good sign. So were the seaweed-green crystals of olivine. Evidently the magma had cooled slowly here, giving it time to react with neighboring rocks and to dyspeptically exsolve out the metals it had carried up from the mantle. “When you change the composition of a melt,” Freedman explained, “everything just goes haywire. Everything’s boiling, and things are unhappy, and it’s just a really chaotic environment.”

In the middle of the face shone a cuprous M&M-size dot. Freedman, pointing to it, called it a “bleb.” Somewhere nearby, within the confines of KoBold’s 280-square-mile block of exploration claims, he was hoping there would be a much bigger one: an ore deposit the size of a car, maybe, or a house, rich with extractable nickel, copper, and, most valuable, cobalt. KoBold’s existence is predicated on the idea that it can find high-grade ore such as that in places where others can’t—and the idea that, once it does, the company will be feeding an exploding global demand.

Twenty-five hundred miles south of KoBold’s claims in Quebec, the other side of that bet was brewing up in a glass tank with the rough dimensions of an office water cooler, housed in a metal frame and fed by thin plastic tubes. Graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, working under a materials chemist named Arumugam Manthiram, were flowing various dissolved metal sulfate salts into the solution in the tank to get them to combine into a solid with a specific microscopic structure. Processed further, the resulting material would power a rechargeable battery cell. But this one, unlike those currently used in both Teslas and iPhones, would need no cobalt at all.

There is a grandly prosaic term for what needs to happen to prevent the planet’s climate from growing ever warmer, more extreme, and bizarre. That term is “the energy transition.” This year’s apocalyptic summer vividly illustrated the stakes of the energy transition, with unprecedented heat, unprecedented drought, unprecedented fires and storms and floods. All of that is because of the carbon we’ve already released into the air. But the grim news of the day has obscured that in the past few years there’s also been dramatic technological progress in the effort to replace fossil fuels. Some of the greatest advances have come in batteries. Over the past decade improvements in energy density and reductions in manufacturing costs have combined to bring the price of electric vehicle batteries down almost tenfold. Analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance predict that within three years, the cost will drop below $100 per kilowatt-hour—the price at which electric vehicles become as cheap as gasoline-powered ones—and continue dropping. Those same advances have made it feasible to store the intermittent energy from solar cells and wind farms in “grid-scale” batteries, making renewable energy even more competitive, on price alone, with coal and natural gas power plants.

Because batteries are a technology like a microchip, rather than a commodity like oil, it makes sense that the trajectory of their capacity and cost will be closer to the former’s steady exponential improvement over time. But batteries also rely on the specific qualities of certain elements to work. The highest-performing lithium-ion batteries on the market today require cobalt, and cobalt is hard to come by. Most of the known reserves lie under Congo, a country plagued by corruption and frequent wars, where mining often occurs in dangerous, deadly conditions, and not infrequently is done by children. Chinese companies own most of Congo’s mines—clean energy, like dirty energy, has its geopolitics. The metal’s price has fluctuated wildly in recent years.

Even if the electric vehicle industry stayed the size it is today (there are a little more than 12 million EVs on the road), it would behoove battery makers to find alternatives. Replacing the world’s 1.2 billion internal combustion vehicles—as we will need to do in the coming decades to have any hope of cutting greenhouse gases—will require something much more dramatic. Solving the climate problem requires solving the battery problem, and solving the battery problem requires solving the cobalt problem.

Among the companies springing up to do that, some are focusing on recycling cobalt out of spent batteries. Others are rethinking ore processing to make once-marginal deposits more cost-effective. A few are trying to mine the ocean floor. But on the most basic level, the approaches are about finding more metal, as KoBold is attempting to do, or figuring out how to use less, like the Manthiram lab. They’re complementary, of course, but they also rely on different conceptions of the future and different diagnoses of the problem. Balkanized, in parallel and at occasionally cross purposes, they’re working against the same clock.

My story is that I should not be here,” Manthiram says, sitting in his ninth-floor office in Austin, below a bank of framed patents and bookshelves colorful with toylike, wood-and-metal models of molecules. Manthiram was born in 1951, to parents with no formal education, in a tiny village called Amarapuram, in Tamil Nadu, near India’s southern tip. His father, who sold firewood for a living, died two months later—Manthiram doesn’t know of what—and his mother never remarried. Instead she focused her energy on her only child. She heard about a Catholic school in the next village and sent him there. “Two miles going, two miles coming back, through the jungle!” Manthiram recalls. “There was no road. There was no weather forecast.” When he graduated high school, his mother’s ambition was for him to open a general store in Amarapuram. One of his teachers convinced her that her son had the potential for a different future. The three of them—teacher, mother, and son—took the bus to a small college 40 miles away where the teacher arranged for the gifted young man to be accepted.

In the late 1970s, when Manthiram was getting his doctorate in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, he focused on metal oxides, a class of materials whose molecular structure makes them useful across a wide spectrum of practical applications. At around that time, a young American physicist named John Goodenough was just starting to think metal oxides might be useful in a rechargeable battery. Goodenough happened to be one of the examiners on Manthiram’s Ph.D. thesis and a few years later hired him as a post-doctoral researcher in his lab at the University of Oxford. When the University of Texas hired Goodenough away from England, Manthiram went with him.

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