Cobalt: the toxic hazard in Lithium batteries that puts profit before people and the planet

Energy storage is a critical link in the global shift toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy economy. Without storage, renewable sources of energy are intermittent and unreliable, but so too is the grid in blackout and emergency scenarios, in which the centralised generation and distribution of power breaks down. Access to renewable energy that is reliable, distributed and uninterrupted when combined with storage, both on and off-grid, creates the opportunity and connection between economic prosperity, social equity and environmental sustainability.

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Catherine Von Burg

Renewable generation, coupled with storage, stands to eliminate the human and environmental damage and costs associated with oil and gas extraction and generation and allows governments globally to forgo the US$5.3 trillion in fossil subsidies, redirecting precious dollars toward other essential government and private enterprise. Distributed renewable generation offers the promise of drastically reducing greenhouse gases, serving the interests of the utility, as well as the customer on the other side of the metre, and reaching remote populations that live beyond the grid. Globally, an estimated 1.2 billion do not have access to power, 1.4 have intermittent access and 1.3 live in the dark, trapping billions of people in poverty and disconnecting them from education, medical care and the digital economy.

Access to renewable energy specifically creates opportunities that have a profound impact on people and communities, from the developed to the undeveloped. Distributed renewable generation and storage emancipates otherwise marginalised communities from the high costs of imported fossil fuel to run generators and heating devices, thereby freeing up funds to invest in other assets, such as education and medical services. The combination of renewable energy and storage puts power back into the hands of people. They own their power, on their terms, anytime, anywhere.

However, many lithium-ion battery manufacturers currently utilise cobalt, a toxic and hazardous mineral in their batteries. The recent battery fires of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 remind us of its hazardous characteristics, including overheating and spontaneous combustion. As if this was not bad enough, cobalt is being considered as the newest rare earth element to earn a place on the ‘conflict minerals’ list because of human abuses and child labor practices in cobalt mining operations. When it comes to batteries, people should not have to choose between their safety and access to power, much less store clean, renewable energy in toxic and hazardous batteries utilising minerals that abuse human rights.

Installation at the Kisokwe Primary School Tanzania

What makes a battery toxic and dangerous?

Cobalt, not lithium, in and of itself is toxic and unstable. When used in lithium-ion batteries, it provides the risk of thermal runaway, a chemical reaction internal to the battery, regardless of ambient temperature. When a battery containing cobalt degenerates and goes into a state of thermal runaway, it becomes an unmitigated fire that is toxic and cannot be extinguished by water or flame retardants, or contained within its housing. Instead, the fire must be allowed to burn, releasing toxic fumes.

Beyond risks of fire, cobalt puts humans and the environment at risk of toxic exposure at every point along the supply chain. From extraction to recycling of cobalt-based batteries, it is compared to blood-diamond mining with regards to its harmful environmental and social effects. From thousands of cobalt miners, (including children), digging by hand, to a lack of safety measures, injuries and death are common in cobalt mines. These harmful working environments expose workers to high levels of cobalt that cause health problems ranging from trouble breathing to asthma, pneumonia, heart effects and dermatitis. Beyond these overall human rights violations, cobalt mining causes significant water pollution for communities living within reach of the mines. Birth defects in these communities are also common.

"For the safety and true sustainability of both the planet and its inhabitants, the energy storage industry must say no to toxic and abusive raw materials."

Energy storage safe enough for people and the planet

By contrast, the battery chemistry Lithium Ferrous Phosphate (LFP), which SimpliPhi Power uses, does not utilize cobalt at all. The chemistry, thereby, eliminates the toxicity and risk of thermal runaway, as well as the environmental and human rights concerns about cobalt. LFP is a newer innovation in lithium cobalt oxide (LCO) and is the safest, most environmentally benign energy storage chemistry on the market.

Combining the LFP chemistry with the right materials, manufacturing techniques, power electronics and architecture can result in an integrated battery that is far superior to lithium-with-cobalt options, providing robust, efficient, safe and enduring batteries for any application. Clean LFP batteries eliminate the environmental and human abuses related to this material’s mining process.

The clean energy movement envisions a world where access to power is possible for all people. However, for the safety and true sustainability of both the planet and its inhabitants, the energy storage industry must say no to toxic and abusive raw materials, such as cobalt, and insist on storage solutions that are conflict and hazard free. The future of our planet depends on it.

This article was published in The Beam magazineSubscribe now for more on the topic.

This article is also available to view on our Medium page.