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battery technology and the cobalt problem

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The battery in my iPhone 6+ is described as a lithium polymer, or Li-ion polymer battery. I’m trying to find out if it contains cobalt. Why? Because cobalt is a problem.

According to this Techcrunch article, most of the world’s cobalt is currently sourced from Africa, especially the Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries. Child labour is regularly used in the mines there, under pain of beatings and other forms of coercion. The battery industry uses about 42% of global cobalt production, and the rest is used in a range of essential military-industrial applications.

Incidentally, this article from teardown.com blog goes deep inside the iPhone 6+ battery, showing that it uses lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) for the cathode.

I can think of three possible ways out of this problem. 1. Stop sourcing cobalt from the Congo, or anywhere else that has exploitative labour practices. 2. Reform those labour practices, to improve the lives of the workers and provide them with a fairer share of the tech revolution profits. 3. Find an alternative to cobalt for batteries and other applications.

I didn’t say there were easy solutions haha. Anyway, let’s examine them.

An online Fortune article from March this year, which by the way confirms that cobalt is indeed used in iPhone and iPad batteries, reported that Apple has responded to investigative articles by Washington Post and Sky News by no longer buying cobalt from companies that employ child labour. Of course, even if we take Apple at its word – and considering that the Congo provides 60% of the world’s cobalt, and other African sources may have similar problems, how else will Apple be able to source cobalt cheaply? – the problem of Congolese child labour remains. The Washington Post report focused on a Chinese company, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company, which purchases a large percentage of Congolese cobalt. It seems highly unlikely that such a company will be as affected by public or media pressure as Apple. However, there are some positive signs. A report in the Financial Times from a year ago, entitled ‘China moves to quell child labour claims in Congo cobalt mines’, says that China has launched a ‘Responsible Cobalt Initiative’ to improve supply chain governance and transparency. Whether this means applying solution 1 or solution 2 to the problem is unclear, but presumably it’s solution 2, and it really is a serious initiative, put forward by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters, backed by the OECD and involving a number of international tech companies. Of course we’ll have to wait for reports on how this initiative is faring, and on whether these companies are concerned to improve the lives of cobalt miners or simply to ban the under-age ones while still paying very little to the remainder. Continued scrutiny is obviously necessary.

Of course, solution 3 would be of most interest to tech-heads (though presumably the effect on the Congolese economy would be terrible). According to this marketing article, there isn’t too much cobalt available, and the demand for it is increasing sharply. One problem is that cobalt isn’t generally mined on its own as ‘primary cobalt’ but as a byproduct of copper or nickel, and both of these metals are experiencing a worldwide price plunge, with many mines suspending activities. Also the current supply chain for cobalt is being dominated by Chinese companies. This could have a stifling effect especially on the EV revolution. Governments in advanced countries around the world – though not in Australia – are mandating the adoption of electric vehicles and the phasing out of fossil-fuel-based road transport. The batteries for these vehicles all contain cobalt.

In the TechCrunch article mentioned above, journalist Sebastien Gandon examines the Tesla situation. The company has a target of 500,000 vehicles a year by 2018, with cobalt sourced exclusively from North America. On the face of it, this seems unrealistic. Canada and the US together produce about 4% of the world’s cobalt supply, and  acccording to Gandon the maths just doesn’t add up, to say the least. For a start, the mining companies Tesla is looking to rely on are not even operational as yet.

However, there are a few more promising signs. The Tesla model S has been using high energy density nickel-cobalt-aluminium-based (NCA) battery cells, which have a lower cobalt content than the nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) batteries of most other companies. There is also the possibility of adopting lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) chemistry, or lithium-manganese-oxide (LMO), neither of which use cobalt, though their lower energy density is a problem. In any case, battery technology is going through a highly intensive phase at present, as I’ve already reported, and a move away from cobalt has become a distinct possibility. Nickel is currently being looked at, but results so far have been disappointing. There are certainly other options in the offing, and cobalt itself, which unlike oil is completely recyclable, could still be viable with greater focus. It isn’t so much that it is scarce, it’s more that, in the past, it hasn’t been a primary focus, but mining it as a primary source will require substantial upfront costs, and substantial time delays.

So, all in all, it’s a problematic future, at least in the short term, for vehicles and technologies using cobalt-based battery systems. We can only wait and see what comes out of it.

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Written by stewart henderson

October 28, 2017 at 12:55 pm

the SA government’s six-point plan for energy security, in the face of a carping Federal government

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South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, right, with SA Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis

The South Australian government has a plan for energy, which you can take a look at here. And if you’re too lazy to click through, I’ll summarise:

  1. Battery storage and renewable technology fund: Now touted as the world’s largest battery, this will be a storage facility for wind and solar energy, and if it works, it will surely be a major breakthrough, global in its implications. The financing of the battery (if we have to pay for it!) will come from a new renewable energy fund.
  2. New state-owned gas power plant: This will be a 250 MW capacity gas powered facility designed initially for emergency use, and treated as a future strategic asset when (and if) greater energy stability is achieved at the national level. In the interim the state government will (try to?) work with transmission and distribution companies to provide 200 MW of extra generation in times of peak demand.
  3. Local powers over the national market: The government will legislate for strong new state powers for its Energy Minister as a last-resort measure to enable action in South Australia’s best interests when in conflict with the national market. In addition, all new electricity-generation projects above 5 MW will be assessed as to their input into the state electricity system and its security.
  4. New generation for more competition: The SA Government will use its own electricity contract (for powering schools, hospitals and government services) to tender for more new power generators, increasing competition in the market and putting downward pressure on prices.
  5. South Australian gas incentives: Government incentives will be given for locally-sourced gas development (we have vast untapped resources in the Cooper Basin apparently) so that we can replace all that dirty brown coal from Victoria.
  6. Energy Security Target: This new target, modelled by Frontier Economics, will be designed to encourage new investments in cleaner energy, to increase competition and put downward pressure on prices. The SA government will continue to advocate for an Emissions Intensity Scheme (EIS), contra the Federal government. It’s expected that the Energy Security Target will morph into an EIS over time – depending largely on supportive national policy. Such a scheme is widely supported by industry and climate science.

It’s an ambitious plan perhaps but it’s definitely a plan, and definitely actionable. The battery storage part is of course generating a lot of energy already, both positive and negative, as pioneering projects tend to do. I’m very much looking forward to December’s unveiling. Interestingly, in this article from April this year, SA Premier Jay Weatherill claimed 90 expressions of interest had been received for building the battery. Looks like they never stood a chance against the mighty Musk. In the same article, Weatherill announced that the expression of interest process had closed for the building of SA’s gas power plant, point two of the six-point plan. Thirty-one companies from around the world have vied for the project, apparently. And as to point three, the new powers legislation was expected to pass through parliament on April 26. Weatherill issued a press release on the legislation in late March. Thanks to parliamentary tracking, I’ve found that the bill – called the Bill to Amend the Emergency Management (Electricity Supply Emergencies) Act – was passed into law by the SA Governor on May 9.

Meanwhile, two regional projects, one in the Riverland and another in the north of SA, are well underway. A private company called Lyon Group is building a $1 billion battery and solar farm at Morgan, and another smaller facility, named Kingfisher, in the north. In this March 30 article by Chris Harmsen, a spokesperson for Lyon Group said the Riverland project, Australia’s largest solar farm, was 100% equity financed (I don’t know what that means – I’ll read this later) and would be under construction within months. It will provide 300MW of storage capacity. The 120 MW Kingfisher project will begin construction in September next year. Then there’s AGL’s 210MW gas-fired power station on Torrens Island, mentioned previously. It’s worth noting that AGL’s Managing Director Andy Vesey spoke of the positive investment climate created by the SA government’s energy plans.

So I think it’s fair to say that in SA we’re putting a lot of energy into energy. Meanwhile, the Federal Energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, never speaks positively about SA’s plans. Presumably this is because SA’s government is on the other side of the political divide. You can’t say anything positive about your political enemies because they might stop being your enemies, and then what would you do? The identity crisis would be intolerable.

I’ve written about macho adversarial systems in politics, law and industrial relations before. Frydenberg, as the Federal Minister, must be well aware of SA’s six-point plan (found with a couple of mouse-clicks), and of the plans and schemes of all the other state governments, otherwise he’d be massively derelict in his duty. Yet he’s pretty well entirely dismissive of the Tesla-Neoen deal, and describes the other SA initiatives, pathetically, as ‘an admission of failure’. It seems almost a rule with the current Feds that you don’t mention renewable, clean energy positively and you don’t mention the SA government’s initiatives in the energy field except negatively. Take for example Frydenberg’s reaction to recent news that the Feds are consulting with the car industry on reducing fuel emissions. He brought up the ‘carbon tax’ debacle (a reference to the former Gillard government’s 2012 carbon pricing scheme, repealed by the Abbott government in 2014), declaring that there would never be another one, as if the attempt to reduce vehicle emissions – carbon emissions – had nothing to do with carbon and its reduction, which was what the carbon pricing scheme was all about. This is the artificiality of adversarial systems – where two parties pretend to be further apart than they really are, so that they can engage in the apparently congenial activity of trading insults and holier-than-thou tirades. It’s so depressing. Frydenberg was at pains to point out that the government’s interest in reducing fuel emissions was purely to benefit family economies. It would’ve taken nothing but a bit of honesty and integrity to also say that reduced emissions would be environmentally beneficial. But this apparently would be a step too far.

In my next post I hope to get my head around battery storage technology, and lithium-ion batteries.

References/links

https://ussromantics.com/2017/07/14/whats-weatherills-plan-for-south-australia-and-why-do-we-have-the-highest-power-prices-in-the-world-oh-and-i-should-mention-elon-musk-here-might-get-me-more-hits/

https://ussromantics.com/2011/06/25/adversarial-approaches-do-we-need-them-or-do-we-need-to-get-over-them/

http://ourenergyplan.sa.gov.au/

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-13/sa-gas-fire-power-station-gains-international-interest/8442578

https://www.premier.sa.gov.au/index.php/jay-weatherill-news-releases/7263-new-legislation-puts-power-back-in-south-australians-hands

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-13/sa-gas-fire-power-station-gains-international-interest/8442578

https://www.parliament.sa.gov.au/Legislation/BillsMotions/SALT/Pages/default.aspx?SaltPageTypeId=2&SaltRecordTypeId=0&SaltRecordId=4096&SaltBillSection=0

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-30/new-solar-project-announced-for-sa-riverland/8400952

http://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/equityfinancing.asp

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_pricing_in_Australia