Researchers create lithium-ion batteries with lower levels of toxicity from cobalt

Cobalt toxicity has been linked to asthma and lung diseases like pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis.

One of the most well-researched areas in modern technology development is battery technology. While it remains essential to all devices – smartphones, computers, laptops and cars – its process of manufacture remains highly polluting.

According to reports, half the world’s supply for cobalt is sourced from Africa, where child labour in the mining industry is still prevalent. The toxicity from cobalt has been shown to cause premature death in these children, by poisoning or susceptibility of children to its toxic effects.

The use of cobalt is essential to the supply chain of today’s devices, but not necessarily at the same levels found in most commercially available batteries, the study shows.

The study looked at levels of cobalt in rechargeable batteries, since it is the ubiquitous choice for gadgets today.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Researchers from New Jersey Institute of Technology and other academic collaborators has shown that the amount of cobalt used in batteries can be brought down, bringing its toxicity and cost down with it.

On reducing the amount of cobalt used in rechargeable batteries, a team of researchers was able to test and successfully run the devices at those cobalt levels. The study’s results show that environmentally-benign, low-cost batteries with reduced levels of cobalt were, in fact, possible.

Another source of danger from cobalt is improper disposal of batteries – a common practise worldwide. Once a battery is used and discarded, it often lands up in dustbins, landfills and finds its way into open air, where they are prone to polluting the environment, both land and air.

Radiology reports showing lung damage from heavy metal poisoning. Image courtesy: University of Virginia

Radiology reports showing lung damage from heavy metal poisoning. Image courtesy: University of Virginia

The cobalt component in batteries can cause many diseases, including asthma and a range of lung diseases including pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis.

Given the awareness of cobalt toxicity to man and environment, there have been more studies and efforts, including those of Tesla Motors, towards manufacturing cobalt-free batteries.

While it may still be a few years before a cobalt-free battery could be developed and mass produced, the researchers at NJIT view their findings as “a great starting point to manufacture cobalt-less batteries.”

The study was recently published in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics.

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