OSU professor awarded $3 million federal grant to produce a sustainable battery without scarce metals

The metals found in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles could become scarce in the decades ahead as demand increases. So Xiulei “David” Ji, an Oregon State University chemistry professor, and a team of OSU scientists set out to find alternatives. 

After a decade investigating and experimenting with battery chemistry and storage, including working the last seven years on the creation of a rechargeable battery that wouldn’t rely on lithium, nickel and cobalt, Ji has made headway with one that would use graphite or other metals.

His batteries might be safer than traditional lithium-ion batteries, too, and have the potential to store more energy, allowing electric vehicles to travel farther on a single charge, he said. 

Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would award Ji $3 million to continue working on the battery, along with teams at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington D.C.; the University of Maryland; and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

“By 2035 we are projected to have global shortages of cobalt and by 2045 global shortages of nickel,” Ji said.

Nickel is extracted from many places, but primarily the Philippines, Canada and Russia. Cobalt is primarily extracted from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Lithium comes mostly from Australia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. 

Though copper is also in limited supply, Ji said he and his team are experimenting with a number of metals he would not disclose. There are no shortages of graphite globally, which can be sourced from many places. 

Ji hopes in three to five years his lab will have a commercially viable battery that does not rely on rare metals. 

Anion batteries

Most batteries contain two electrodes that generate an electrical current, called a cathode and an anode. In a lithium-ion battery, the cathode needs to be made from cobalt and nickel to store positively charged lithium-ions. In Ji’s anion battery, the cathode could be made from cheaper and more abundant metals such as copper, or carbon such as graphite because those materials aren’t needed to store anions. Anions are negatively charged molecules or atoms. 

Currently, the cathode makes up about half the cost of a lithium-ion battery because of the price of cobalt and nickel. 

A lithium-ion battery in an electric vehicle can’t store much more energy right now unless it gets bigger and heavier, Ji said. With anions, there’s potential a similar sized battery could hold more energy and expand the distance a vehicle could travel on a single charge. Currently, the lithium-ion battery in a Tesla Model S has the farthest range of any electric vehicle – about 400 miles on a single charge.

“That is the prospect, breaking the ceiling,” Ji said of his battery. “But we have got to start from new chemistry that provides a new theoretical ceiling,” Ji said.

Ji is hopeful in the near future his team could get enough federal funding to build a center at the school focused on sustainable battery development, both for powering transportation as well as for storing large amounts of wind and solar energy.  

“The assumption for many is to look for battery technology in the Bay Area” Ji said, referring to the San Francisco, California area. He wants entrepreneurs and investors to see Oregon as an even more lucrative place to seek this technology. 

“Eventually, I hope there will be a consensus that more resources and a larger scale effort are needed,” he said.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.