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ORNL and Sparkz Work to Make Lithium Batteries Cobalt-Free, Boosting EV Market Potential

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A strategic partnership between Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and energy storage startup SPARKZ Inc. aims to commercialize a suite of interrelated technologies designed to eliminate the unsustainable cobalt metal from lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries.  (more)

Li-ion batteries power a range of electronic devices, including electric vehicles (EVs). Cobalt is rare and costly, hindering the potential growth of the EV market. Only 4% of the world’s cobalt reserve is in North America; the resource is primarily exported from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where reports of ethical and human rights violations have subjected mining practices to international scrutiny. Those reasons — as well as health, safety and environmental concerns related to cobalt — have made the development and commercialization of cobalt-free alternatives for Li-ion batteries a national priority.

“Moving forward to an electrified world with millions of electric cars, cobalt is not sustainable,” said Dr. Ilias Belharouak, Electrification Section head in ORNL’s Electrification and Energy Infrastructures Division.

ORNL’s technologies, when scaled for industry by SPARKZ, will address all of these concerns with cobalt-free alternatives that do not sacrifice critical performance parameters. 

ORNL’s innovations include cobalt-free materials, battery design changes that incorporate the new materials, and a large-scale manufacturing process. Together these technologies will enable mass production of more sustainable, fast-charging, cobalt-free batteries — potentially allowing electric charging stations to become the gas stations of the future.

In addition to licensing the laboratory’s intellectual property (IP) to SPARKZ, ORNL’s technology transfer efforts include collaborating with SPARKZ to incubate and validate these innovations for the marketplace under Department of Energy (DOE) commercialization programs. Those programs include the Technology Commercialization Fund and the Lab Investment Incubator Activity — each of which facilitated significant investor funding and a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). 

Short-term significant impacts of the technology transfer partnership include: 

  • Collaboration with SPARKZ at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, enabling uninterrupted collaboration and synergy between R&D and industry scale-up efforts. 
  • Plans for the first U.S.-based Li-ion battery manufacturing facility by the end of 2021. 
  • Drawing industry attention to the potential of cobalt-free alternatives to expand the U.S. presence in the Li-ion battery market and create a domestic supply chain for next-generation transportation and power grid solutions.

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Team members 
Dr. Jennifer Caldwell, ORNL, Dr. Ilias Belharouak, ORNL, Dr. Jagjit Nanda, ORNL, and Dr. Sanjiv Malhotra, SPARKZ, Inc.