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Climate change and energy

A freshly funded battery startup aims to ease the cobalt crunch

June 20, 2018

Conamix, a little-known startup based in Ithaca, New York, has raised several million dollars to accelerate its development of cobalt-free materials for lithium-ion batteries, the latest sign that companies are eager to find alternatives to the increasingly rare and expensive metal.

The problem: The price of cobalt has more than doubled in recent months, as global demand skyrockets for the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles and smartphones. It's also being driven up by the fact that the metal is mined primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where labor and corruption issues are rife. Earlier this year, the nation decided to raise royalties on cobalt and other metals.

Given the ambitious expansion plans of lithium-ion producers, the world will face cobalt shortages by the early 2020s, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This is keeping prices of lithium-ion batteries high and preventing major automakers from lining up long-term supply deals on favorable terms.

The mounting threat to electric-vehicle growth has prompted a growing number of companies to explore other solutions.

The technology: Technical details are scant, but Conamix is developing cobalt-free electrode materials that would work in existing manufacturing processes. The company didn't reveal the funding amount, but Bloomberg put the Series A round at $2 million. 

It's part of a larger, $8 million commitment from several firms, the news service said. The main investor is Volta Energy Technologies, which launched last year with the backing of the lithium giant Albemarle and Exelon, in an effort to accelerate the development of promising energy storage technologies.

The path forward: Tesla's battery partner Panasonic announced last month that it's also working to develop cobalt-free automotive batteries. Others companies like LG Chem, Samsung, and Johnson Matthey are shifting to new chemistries with higher energy density and less cobalt (see "This startup developed a promising new battery material—and a movel survival strategy"). Meanwhile, firms are also accelerating efforts to recycle metals from old batteries more effectively.

The challenge for companies developing novel battery chemistries is that automakers subject the materials to years of rigorous tests before putting them in electric vehicles on the road. That means it will be a long time before these advances help alleviate the looming cobalt crunch. 






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