(Nanowerk News) In a discovery that could reduce or even eliminate the use of cobalt – which is often mined using child labor – in the batteries that power electric cars and other products, scientists at the University of California, Irvine have developed a durable alternative made with nickel.
“Nickel doesn’t have a child labor problem,” said Huolin Xin, UCI professor of physics & astronomy whose team devised the method, which could usher in a new generation of lithium-ion batteries that are less controversial. Until recently, nickel was not a practical substitute because it was needed in large quantities to make lithium batteries, he said. And the cost of metal is steadily increasing.
To be an economical alternative to cobalt, nickel-based batteries need to use as little nickel as possible.
“We are the first group to start heading towards low nickel,” said Xin, whose team published its findings in the journal. Natural Energy (“Long-life lithium-ion battery realized by low-Ni cathode chemistry, Co-free”). “In a previous study by my group, we found a new solution to completely remove cobalt. But that formulation still relies heavily on nickel.”
To solve that problem, Xin’s team spent three years devising a process called “complex concentrated doping” that allows scientists to change the main chemical formula in lithium-ion batteries as easily as adjusting a spice in a recipe.
The doping process, Xin explained, removes the need for cobalt in commercial components essential for lithium-ion battery function and replaces it with nickel.
“Doping also increases the efficiency of nickel,” said Xin, meaning EV batteries now require less nickel to run – something that will help make the metal a more attractive alternative to cobalt-based batteries.
Xin said he thinks the new nickel chemistry will soon start changing the lithium-ion battery industry. Already, he says, the electric vehicle company plans to take the results his team published and copy them.
“EV makers are excited about low nickel batteries, and many EV companies are looking to validate this technique,” said Xin. “They want to do a safety test.”