Engineers Search for Cobalt-free Smartphone Batteries

Cobalt, a metal that once gave its name to a pleasant blue pigment derived from the element, is today an important material used for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are needed for smartphones and other mobile devices as well as for electric automobiles. The problem is, however, that the price of cobalt is skyrocketing and taking the price tags attached to phones and tablets with it.

A small startup company in Ithaca, New York might have an answer to the mobile industry’s problems. Conamix has recently raised a few million dollars to invest in developing lithium-ion batteries that don’t include any cobalt-based compounds. The fact that engineers were able to receive this kind of money would indicate that companies are indeed excited about the prospect of batteries that don’t call for the rare material.

It seems that proven supplies of cobalt are quickly running out, which has lead to today’s report about Conamix. On top of this, geographical issues are causing serious problems for the mobile device market.

Labor stoppages, corruption and political unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have made supplies of cobalt rather scarce as that nation is home to the world’s primary reserves of the metal. On top of this, the country voted to raise royalty prices on cobalt as well as other metals exported to the international market. This has put severe pressure on electronics companies to find other battery chemistries.

Engineers and economists have suggested that the world will have a major cobalt shortage in just five or six years. This has led some to suggest that other older battery chemistries go back into production. Rechargeable batteries based around other metals don’t always call for cobalt, which could help to assuage the issue.

However, alternative battery designs don’t hold a charge for nearly as long as lithium-ion ones do. They also tend to discharge unevenly, which could cause voltage issues in sensitive mobile applications. Operating systems that run on today’s mobile devices usually prefer even current.

Since they’re also often toxic, it looks like Conamix’s method of fixing the cobalt shortage by designing a radically new battery that could serve as a drop-in replacement for existing digital hardware might be the best way to go.

John Rendace
John is a GNU/Linux expert with a hobbyist's background in C/C++, Web development, storage and file system technologies. In his free time, he maintains custom and vintage PC hardware. He's been compiling his own software from source since the DOS days and still prefers using the command line all these years later.