Scientists have found a way of using alternative metals in lithium-based batteries that might not only help relieve the issues associated with conflict materials, but also offer more storage capacity in future devices.
The research team, led by professors at the University of California, Berkeley, managed to build lithium cathodes with 50 per cent more storage capacity than conventional materials - potentially enabling batteries to be made that can last considerably longer between recharges than current battery technology.
This could change how we use technology in the future as these batteries are used in phones, laptops, tablets and even some cars.
It's also a potentially important step environmentally as lithium-based batteries currently use more than 50 per cent of all cobalt produced in the world, of which around half comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it's largely mined by hand - in some instances by children.
For the first time we have a really cheap element that can do a lot of electron exchange in batteries
"We've opened up a new chemical space for battery technology," said the University's professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and senior author of the report, Gerbrand Ceder.
"For the first time we have a really cheap element that can do a lot of electron exchange in batteries."
The study has been published in the April edition of the journal Nature and is a collaboration between scientists at UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab, Argonne National Lab, MIT and UC Santa Cruz.
"To deal with the resource issue of cobalt, you have to do away from this layeredness in cathodes," Ceder added. "Disordering cathodes has allowed us to play with a lot more of the periodic table."
In the new study, Ceder's lab shows how new technologies can be used to get a lot of capacity from a cathode.
In the world of batteries, this is a huge improvement over conventional cathodes
Using a process called 'fluorine doping', the scientists incorporated a large amount of manganese in the cathode. Having more manganese ions with the proper charge enables the cathodes to hold more lithium ions, thus increasing the battery's capacity.
"In the world of batteries, this is a huge improvement over conventional cathodes," said lead author Jinhyuk Lee, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Ceder's lab during the study.
The new lithium alternative technology needs to be scaled up and tested more to see if it can be used in applications like laptops or electric vehicles, however.
But Ceder says whether or not this technology actually makes it inside a battery is beside the point as the researchers have opened new possibilities for the design of cathodes, an even bigger feat, apparently.
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