Think Out Loud

The promising potential of using iron instead of scarce metals in batteries

By Allison Frost (OPB)
June 3, 2024 6:38 a.m. Updated: June 10, 2024 8:55 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, June 3

In this undated file photo, electric car batteries are charging at a charging station.

In this undated file photo, electric car batteries are charging at a charging station.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network


Iron is one of the cheapest and most abundant metals on the planet, unlike nickel and cobalt, which are used in lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles, and ubiquitous devices, from mobile phones to laptops. Oregon State University chemistry researcher Xiulei “David” Ji is an author of a new study that shows iron can be used to replace metals that are scarce, expensive and can be environmentally damaging to extract. He hopes this technology will be the spark for a green battery technological evolution that could aid the switch from fossil fuels to electricity. We talk with Ji about the importance of green batteries, and the development of a new generation of lithium-ion batteries using iron. what’s next in developing a widely commercially available lithium-ion battery using iron.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. There is a very good chance that you used nickel and cobalt today, maybe at this very moment. They are two of the metals in the ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries that power everything from cell phones and laptops to electric cars, but they are scarce, expensive and can be environmentally damaging to extract. A chemist at Oregon State University hopes that nickel and cobalt could be replaced by one of the most abundant metals on the planet. Xiulei “David” Ji is an author of a new study looking into iron as a substitute. He joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Xiulei “David” Ji: Thank you for having me.

Miller: What is driving your research? I gave a two-sentence version of this, but why are you looking for a replacement for cobalt and nickel?

Ji: For societal impact. We hope to have a sustainable industry to power our transportation and we also work on energy storage. This research is about transportation, and nickel and cobalt are not sustainable. So we may have a shortage of cobalt in 2035 …

Miller: In just 11 years.

Ji: Yeah. And for nickel, might be 2045. So we can have a shortage … well, not mentioning the supply chain challenges. Just abundance is not sufficient to power all the transportation we have.

Miller: And that is a question of abundance. But what about what it takes to extract them? Is there a difference in terms of the environmental impact of mining cobalt or nickel, compared to getting iron?

Ji: These metals are unevenly distributed. Cobalt, about 50% comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and workers mining the minerals under very inhumane conditions. And nickel is mostly in Southeast Asia. So these are not so available for the US to develop its own EV industry.

Miller: And what is the availability of iron in comparison?

Ji: Iron is ubiquitous. If you think about iron for the crust, it is the number four most abundant element. It is only after aluminum for abundance and for the entire earth is number one, because the molten core of the earth is iron.

Miller: Can you explain what you and your team did in a way that the non-chemists among us, which is me and almost everybody who can hear you right now, in a way that we can understand?

Ji: I will try. Iron usually, in conventional electro-materials, can provide one electron per atom of iron. We discovered that if you design the neighborhood for iron particles, the neighborhood being more diverse, to have other types of ions, not just one type of ion … we actually put phosphate and fluoride in a disordered structure, raised the energy a little bit, so the phosphate and fluoride, it can move, and iron ions can move as well.

It’s like a concert, like a symphony. So that actually induces the reactivity of iron, potentially to provide three electrons instead of one. The energy density seeding is way higher than the current materials. Capacity and cycle life is now very promising.

Miller: Capacity, meaning how much energy you can put in there, and cycle life, meaning how many times you can charge it and discharge it?

Ji:  Exactly. Capacity is the number of charges we can store in one electro-material. And if you have the capacity times the voltage, you have the energy.

Miller: And you’re mainly focused here as the end-product, on big powerful batteries for electric vehicles, as opposed to cell phones or other smaller electronics?

Ji: If you think about the applications of lithium ion batteries, you can basically use it for any purpose. The form factors, the dimensions, the sizes can be designed, that’s engineering work. So we work on fundamental chemistry. We try to understand how ions are moving, how atoms are interacting with each other, to provide the reactivity we need for energy density.

Miller: We started by saying that you’re looking for a replacement for these other metals: cobalt and nickel. And you thought, “Let’s see if we can make it work with iron because it’s cheaper to get, it’s everywhere.” But you said the way to make it work is to add two other things: phosphate and fluoride. Are those also easy to get, or are you now making this more complicated in trying to make iron work?

Ji: Well, phosphate is quite abundant. We actually have phosphate for fertilizers. And fluoride, it’s quite also available, we even add fluoride to our drinking water for some areas to strengthen our teeth. So they’re not rare per se, but certainly it’s going to add some complexity for the structure design for processing, per se.


Miller: How might the price of a battery with iron compare to current ones with nickel and cobalt?

Ji: That’s a great question. If we talk about EV’s, everybody’s really passionate about having their cars with a longer driving range. With the current performance, we probably can extend the distance by 8% to 10%, with a cost lower by 8% to 10%. So, if you replace all the cobalt and nickel with iron, iron costs very little. So your battery cost will be lower, the pack of the battery will be lower and the electric vehicle will be less expensive.

Miller: And the battery is not going to be heavier either.

Ji: Yeah, by having a higher energy density, your batteries will be probably 8% to 10% lighter, but that’s the current performance – and that’s just our initial result. The ceiling is way higher. We potentially can push the driving range to about 400 miles, just by replacing the current cast of materials. I’m not talking about the improvement of anodes and other constituents of the batteries, just one component.

Miller: What is your dream scenario for how this could be developed into a commercial product? Because we’re still talking about early on … maybe not basic science, but this is far from a final product. What’s the dream scenario?

Ji: The best ideal scenario is we have visionaries, because we do have this technology, it’s emerging. And this is proprietary, we have patents founded by Oregon State University. Whoever develops this technology will have the first mover advantage – that’s a big advantage. So to go around the current technology and you have the opportunity to bypass the current supply chain challenges. I’m seeing, this can be a new chapter for the lithium-ion battery industry.

Miller: You have said, it says this in the press release, that storage efficiency needs to be strengthened. What does that mean?

Ji: Yeah, that’s a very technical question.

Miller: It sounds like an important piece of this. Is there a way to explain the challenge in a way people can understand?

Ji: I will try. So, we have a disordered structure, right? For ions to move through the structure, it has to push around the crowd of other ions and atoms. And that pushing process, that meandering path, will consume some energy. We hope to minimize that consumption of energy, because that energy will be consumed and converted to heat. We don’t want heat to be generated by batteries.

Miller: No. We don’t want to blow up or to catch fire.

Ji:  Exactly.

Miller: So that is one of the technical issues you still have to work on. Are there other market challenges, as opposed to technical ones, that you think would be the biggest hurdles that would get in the way of this actually coming to market?

Ji: Yeah, this is a fundamental chemistry progress. We have to really engage engineers and the designers for the product for the scaling up process. We have to invent the processing tools and processing methods to to manufacture this material on a large scale. So that is something I’m going to work with other colleagues to make it happen.

Miller: This work is just one piece of a much, much larger puzzle – basically a societal puzzle – can we transition, as a species, fast enough away from fossil fuels, and towards electricity to power almost every aspect of our lives? How optimistic are you that, as a species, we’re going to get this right?

Ji: Before we have nuclear fusion figured out, before we can miniaturize extremely high energy density, probably nuclear devices, to power transportation, we probably have to rely on electricity. And for batteries, it has two grand challenges to address. One is the energy storage, so that we can have the solar and wind installed. Right now, we don’t have enough solar and wind, because we don’t have a lot of ways to store it. You know, pumped hydro is not going to be convenient enough.

And the other is to use electricity smartly. Sixty-nine percent of petroleum used in the United States is for transportation. If we don’t use electricity for transportation, we have to rely on petroleum. So it’s parallel issues that have to be addressed, simultaneously.

Miller: What gives you hope right now?

Ji: Well, I think there’s still a huge potential. Sometimes when I think about energy storage, this is not about transportation just for storing energy. I’m thinking the timing right now is about the 1980′s for the semiconductor industry. We just need more people to work on it, with more investment, and then we can have a greener and more sustainable future.

Miller: Your point about the 1980′s, meaning that we are on the cusp of gigantic technological change, and that battery technology in general is going to grow by leaps and bounds in the country in the next decade or two.

Ji: Yeah, when people talk about batteries, it’s not about lithium-ion batteries, but actually there are other opportunities, there are other options, that you don’t have a huge demand for energy density. For storage, we can actually use some batteries with a lower energy density. The key is the cost and whether it’s sustainable or not.

Miller:  Xiulei “David” Ji, thanks very much.

Ji: Thank you for having me.

Miller: David Ji is a researcher at Oregon State University’s Department of Chemistry. He joined us to talk about his new work looking into iron as a substitute for nickel and cobalt in lithium-ion batteries.

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