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In Kawama, DRC, a miner prepares to descend. Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The U.S. government is funding a push to reinvent lithium-ion batteries so they contain little or no cobalt, an increasingly expensive metal found largely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where activists say workers often toil in inhumane conditions.

The big picture: Cobalt — contained in virtually every commercial lithium-ion battery on the planet — has unusual energy density and the ability to stabilize volatile electrochemistry. But its price has swung wildly given booming demand for electric cars in China, from Tesla, and elsewhere — in addition to electronic devices like smartphones.

  • By seeking to eliminate or seriously reduce the metal's use in batteries, the Department of Energy, along with several startups, may complicate what has been one of the primary quests of the last decade: to create a safer, cheaper battery that lasts much longer than current technology.
  • In a June speech in Washington, D.C., Peter Faguy, a senior manager in the battery research effort at DOE, used the term "blood cobalt" to describe the metal, suggesting that removing it from lithium-ion batteries is a moral issue.

What's going on: The DOE is funding three-year research efforts at Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley national labs.

  • Jason Croy, who is leading the Argonne effort, said that a leading solution is to swap in nickel. That does well in achieving high energy, but so far hasn't proven stable enough for use in commercial batteries. He said manganese is another potential substitute.
  • At Berkeley, Gerbrand Ceder, the project leader, said he is working on an entirely different material — a battery made with disordered rock salt, which he said does not require cobalt for stability. He said the battery can be charged at a high five volts, a key quality when high energy is sought.

The bottom line: Ceder said cobalt may never be removable from electronic devices because the space for a battery is so small that the metal's density is needed.

Go deeper

Hope King, author of Closer
Updated 49 mins ago - Economy & Business

Peloton pumps its brakes

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Peloton’s popularity is falling as swiftly as it shot up.

Why it matters: Not all pandemic habits stick around. Peloton's trajectory over the past two years exemplifies how challenging it's been for companies to gauge shifts in consumer demand — particularly in sectors heavily altered by the pandemic.

Mitch McConnell's remarks on Black voters raise ire

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during a Capitol Hill news conference earlier this year. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been widely criticized for comments he made this week about Black American voters.

Driving the news: When asked by a reporter Wednesday about concerns among voters of color, McConnell said "the concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, Black American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans."

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Trump’s friends worry legal pick for N.Y. case lacks experience

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Close associates and advisers to Donald Trump tell Axios they're concerned by his decision to use a relatively inexperienced New Jersey attorney, Alina Habba, in his high-stakes legal fight against New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Why it matters: A former president typically has access to the country's most prestigious experts, including lawyers. Trump has turned to the former general counsel for a parking garage company, who works from a small law office near his Bedminster, N.J., country club.