Tantalum me no more.
The hours and hours now needed to charge smartphones, laptops, phablets and tablets may soon be a thing of the past if one can believe the news rocketing round the world on those smartphones that a new battery has arrived.
This new battery is made principally of aluminium.
Wow. Aluminium. Light, bendable, cheap and there’s mountains of it.
Not like lithium – the principle element in lithium-ion batteries. Or tantalum.
There is not a hell of a lot of lithium in the world. Reserves are very hard to calculate but are in the order of about 12 million tonnes and most of that is in South America. Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina are the tops with nearly half the world’s reserves in Bolivia.
However, best guesses are that there should be enough.
But cell phones, laptops and so on are not just made of lithium. They need other things like tantalum, copper, cobalt, tin, nickel and iron. And at present that tantalum is pretty rare.
There is fifty times more gold in the world than there is tantalum and Australia is the leading source of it right now, though a lot comes from the Congo where it funded the Rwandan backed army.
So, missing from all the chat about how
flimsy and cheap light and economical aluminium is, is whether the new batteries will still need that tantalum.
You see hidden in the small print is the fact that the new battery only features half the voltage of the lithium battery.
But we will fix that “real soon now”
Which is what they always say when a new type of storage material is needed for those wind farms and those solar panels.
Over and over practical men and women point out that these marvellous ways of creating electricity need to be stored to be of any real use for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. “Ah, but,” runs the mantra, “Real soon now, there will be batteries we can use for that – and then we will have electric cars everywhere.”
So this new battery will probably still need that tantalum for its high capacitor qualities – and tantalum is a conflict resource material. Congo sells it cheaper than Australia can because the soldiers of the Congo own it, and they extract it with methods not seen since the days of Roman salt mine slaves.
It will need it because aluminium does not have the energy density needed. It will require a great deal of re-configuration to improve that as well.
In fact, lithium borohydride has twice the energy density of aluminium.
So don’t pop the champagne bottles just yet. The extraordinarily fast recharge times of one minute that is being touted are likely to be its only selling point and when the other bits and pieces are inserted into the aluminium cathode it may be speedier but it is unlikely to be any cheaper.
And the best guess is that there is no more than 50 years of tantalum left in the world unless you recycle the cell phone somehow.