Batteries

A push for a battery leap to eliminate "blood cobalt"

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.

Expert Voices

Solid-state battery tech gaining momentum with automaker investments

From top left to bottom right, various stages of how copper foam substrate becomes a a solid-state full-cell 3-D battery at Prieto Battery May 16, 2017 in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
Various stages of copper foam substrate becoming a a solid-state battery, at Prieto Battery, on May 16, 2017, in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Photo: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Volkswagen is considering building a factory in Europe to produce solid-state batteries, a next-generation battery technology, to power its electric vehicles, according to a report from earlier this month. The news comes on the heels of Volkswagen's June investment of $100 million in QuantumScape, a solid-state battery startup.

The big picture: Solid-electrolyte batteries gained prominence in the lab a decade ago, but are just now achieving the cell performance to make the automotive industry take notice, with Volkswagen specifically citing performance demonstration "at automotive rates of power." As the technology develops, there has been a flurry of international development interest: Toyota, Nissan, Dyson and BMW have all made similar investments.