Cobalt powering the green economy
The clean energy revolution is replacing fossil fuels like oil and gas with new sources. Aside from the usual forms of renewable energy such as wind turbines, metals and minerals are seen as the new power train. From powering electric cars to being used in solar panels and other forms of renewable energy, they are seen as the means by which mobility and other industries will be decarbonized in the future. One of the most notable metals in this context is cobalt.
The European Union and the United States have classified it as a Critical Raw Material and with its energy storage capacity, hardness, and temperature resilience it is a technology-enabling metal. Cobalt is powering our digital world by being part of circuits, semiconductors, computers and phones.
But how does it play a key role in powering the green economy?
As we move towards the decarbonization of transportation, the demand for energy storage and rechargeable batteries is increasing exponentially, with the aim of achieving zero emissions.
Cobalt is essential to the electrification of mobility, being a key component in both the cathodes – the active materials – of lithium-ion batteries and the electronics needed for smart mobility. In fact, cobalt is the ingredient that gives the range and durability to electric vehicles needed by consumers. It ensures higher energy density and improves the length of time your energy will be available and can be used for, but also how fast the battery can be charged. That means it determines both how long the battery of your phone lasts and how many kilometers you can drive.
Different governments around the world have already drawn up a roadmap to decarbonize the global economy in the fight against climate change, and one of the strategies is to ban the sale of internal combustion engines, such as those used in diesel and petrol cars. This is set to happen in many cases as early as 2030. For example the European Green Deal decouples economic growth from fossil fuels and contains a commitment to have no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. This and many other considerations have encouraged car manufacturers take the decision to transform their entire fleets to electric in the future, including fuel cell technology.
Most of the current electric vehicle models use batteries made with lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide chemistries, better known as NMC. Those are around 20% cobalt. This type of technology is valued for its energy density, its long-life use and its very low self-heating rate. It is also ideal for e-bikes.
Many mobility companies are rushing to produce electric cars that can drive ever longer distances with shorter charges. Our Rechargeable Battery Materials division uses our competencies in chemistry, material science and metallurgy to help different businesses and car manufacturers achieve this, offering very pure battery-grade cobalt and nickel sulphate to produce NCA or NMC for automotive and stationary power fields.
The transition to e-mobility will take some time, as everyone is searching for alternatives that reduce carbon production in the process. These include catalyst root filters that filter our emissions to contribute to cleaner air during the transition from fuel and diesel cars. Again, this is partly made possible by metals– precious metals in fact, like palladium, platinum and rhodium.
Creating the power and heat we use daily is responsible for 25% of global emissions. Cobalt plays an important role in both the batteries that allow us to store green energy and in generating that energy. Take wind power, for example, one of the fastest-growing sources of renewable energy. It is sourced using a large turbine that rotates with the wind and feeds a generator. The generator uses magnetic fields to then create electricity. With the use of permanent and strong magnets, the turbine keeps working without any input of power from other sources, even in low wind seasons. Cobalt is an important component of the strongest permanent magnets.
As mentioned before, cobalt is an important part of the rechargeable batteries used in battery energy storage systems. Most of the time, energy produced by the wind and sun is fed directly into the grid. What that means is that energy flows directly into a complex system of electricity substations and transformers that connect to electricity producers and consumers to be used immediately. In the case of renewables, the electricity supply is not constant. If energy storage is used, this energy can be safely stored locally for when it is needed later on. When the wind is not strong, the sun isn’t shining or the water is not flowing, cobalt aids in the storage of green power through rechargeable batteries.
Can you imagine that almost 40 years ago no one carried a mobile phone? It has now become difficult to imagine that portable devices are new technologies, but they weren’t always available. Batteries were one of the drivers of the creation of mobile phones. They also power cars, computers, cameras and other devices. Without cobalt all of this would be very difficult. The light weight and high energy density of lithium-ion batteries have allowed electronic devices to become smaller and liberated them from power cables. The most popular technology for this is the lithium-cobalt oxide (LCO) battery, which has a cathode composed of LiCoO2. What makes it popular is its high energy density, which allows your phone’s battery to run for a long time. Without portable devices and electronics, the digitalization behind our green economy wouldn’t exist.
Discover how cobalt plays a role in your daily lives
One of the many ways to improve the way we treat our planet is by introducing a circular economy. This is a model of consumption and production in which we reuse, share, repair or recycle existing materials for as long as possible, thus limiting the use of scarce materials that is partly responsible for accelerating climate change. At Umicore we call this concept ‘closing the loop’, and it has been part of our business model for over 20 years.
The key here is to have an environmentally responsible (eco-efficient) and commercially attractive recycling solution for the products we put on the market. Batteries are essential to our future, but as we continue to enhance our lives with these devices and protect the planet, battery disposal is becoming an environmental challenge.
The good news is that we can recycle them. From these batteries, valuable metals are recovered to be converted into active cathode materials for the production of new rechargeable batteries. This helps preserve the environment and the earth’s natural resources.
Many of these metals come from specific countries, and about 65% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. About 80% of the cobalt mined in the DRC originates from industrialized operations that often meet high labor, social and environmental standards. At the same time, part of the cobalt supply is extracted by hand in small-scale, so-called artisanal mines, where serious abuses have been reported. Artisanal mines in the DRC are often linked to child labor and unsafe work conditions. Umicore has been active in ensuring that the cobalt used in its products and services is ethically sourced.
Generating energy when the wind blows and storing it when it doesn’t, powering cars and portable devices that bring us closer to a sustainable tomorrow and even closing the loop and bringing it back to the value chain: cobalt is one of the critical raw materials that will play a huge role in powering the green economy in the hope of stopping climate change.