The elimination of cobalt — an expensive chemical component currently required to power our smartphones and laptops — from lithium-ion batteries has been the goal of Texas Engineer Arumugam Manthiram for much of his career.

Arumugam Manthira
 

When paired with a graphite anode (the terminal on a battery through which an electric current enters), a lithium cobalt oxide cathode (the terminal the electric current leaves through) offers high energy density, making the lithium-ion battery the most widely used power source. The problem, however, is that cobalt is both finite and expensive, and existing lithium-ion battery cathodes are comprised of more than 40 percent cobalt.

Manthiram, who has been a leading researcher in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering for decades, has demonstrated a cathode composition requiring only 6 percent of cobalt in a lithium-ion battery. Now, through a new $3 million collaborative project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Manthiram is aiming to not only demonstrate his low-cobalt battery technology in a large cell — the industry standard — but also develop a lithium-ion battery that requires no cobalt whatsoever while still maintaining the same energy density.

“This would be a major step forward for large-scale deployment of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles,” Manthiram said.

Demand for battery metals like cobalt has surged in recent years because of the growing global appetite for electric vehicles. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK, one ton of cobalt was priced at around $32,000 in 2017. Today the price is closer to $80,000. 

It’s not surprising, therefore, that industry will be heavily interested in this project. UT Austin is leading the effort in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado and LG Chem in Michigan.

While Texas Engineering already has a globally recognized reputation for leading battery technology, Manthiram believes the facilities at the Texas Materials Institute played a pivotal role in obtaining this Department of Energy funding. “We now have world-class facilities at our disposal, and we have tools and equipment that give us the capability to conduct cutting-edge materials science and engineering research,” said Manthiram. “I expect many more innovations in energy storage research to come out of UT in the coming years.”