IBM’s lithium battery uses seawater materials instead of heavy metals

Lithium-ion batteries are seen as a vital technology in our pursuit of sustainable energy, but there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to their impact on the Earth. The construction of these devices involves sourcing of heavy metals like cobalt, which are expensive and come at significant environmental and humanitarian cost. IBM has this week unveiled a new battery that relies on materials from seawater instead, with its early testing suggesting these components mightn’t mean a compromise in performance, either.

There is a considerable interest in developing alternatives to the heavy metals, such as cobalt and nickel, used in lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt, in particular, has increasingly come under fire of late, with a 2016 investigation by The Washington Post shining a light on the child labor being used in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Just this week, a lawsuit was filed against Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell and Tesla on behalf of 14 Congolese families, whose children were killed or permanently injured while illegally mining the material for use in their products.

Aside from the immediate dangers of cobalt mining in Africa, these operations have also been blamed for devastating landscapes, polluting water supplies, ruining crops and degrading soil.

IBM’s battery doesn’t involve cobalt or nickel, materials that would be used in the cathode component of a typical lithium-ion battery. Its researchers have instead made use of three materials that can be extracted from seawater (though they haven’t divulged the names of these ingredients), and added a new type of liquid electrolyte.

The resulting chemistry produced some promising results in early testing, according to IBM. The cobalt- and nickel-free battery avoids the formation of tentacle-like dendrites during charging, a drawback that often plagues experimental batteries and increases the chance of fire or failure.

It also demonstrated rapid charging rates, achieving an 80 percent charge within five minutes. IBM says its power density exceeded 10,000 W/L, and its energy density was more than 800 Wh/L, figures that put it on par or even ahead of today’s standard lithium-ion batteries.

In an effort to get its new battery into the real world, IBM has now partnered with Mercedes-Benz ’s research arm in North America, along with other research partners to pursue commercial development.