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Diamond Nuclear Batteries Promise “Near-Infinite” Power

Written by Luke Burgess
Posted January 31, 2020

Imagine buying batteries to power your electronic devices that would last your entire lifetime...

No more recharging or batteries that won't charge.

No more replacing dead batteries.

Sounds great, right?

Maybe even too good to be true?

Researchers at the University of Bristol, U.K. say they've developed a technique to turn radioactive waste from nuclear power plants into nuclear-powered batteries, which they claim can last for thousands of years.

Yeah, thousands.

Scientists say carbon-14, a radioactive isotope found in nuclear waste, can be treated to create diamonds, which could be used to provide power on a “near-infinite basis” for low-energy devices, such as cell phones, pacemakers, and satellites.

The lead researcher on the project, Professor Tom Scott, says, “By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”

(I'm not going to go into all the specifics of the process right now. But I'll leave a link at the end of this article to the University of Bristol's promotional video for its new nuclear-powered batteries. It explains the idea in full.)

Now, I'm not a nuclear physicist, but all this sounds just a bit too good to be true. Fact is, anytime I see the words “infinite” and “energy” or “power” in the same sentence, my bullshit alarms go right off.

But let's just assume for a moment that these miraculous diamond nuclear batteries are, in fact, practical and economically feasible. I've got to wonder how many people are really going to be comfortable carrying nuclear waste batteries around in their pockets — or, in the case of pacemakers, inside their bodies.

You know what kinds of batteries are working well for us now, folks?

Lithium-ion batteries.

And you know what kinds of batteries we'll most likely be using for the foreseeable future?

Lithium-ion batteries.

Of course, lithium-ion batteries aren't perfect. And in a thousand years, there's little doubt lithium-ion batteries will have long been replaced by something else. But for now, and probably for the rest of our lives, lithium-ion batteries it is.

But that still leaves us with one big problem: cobalt supplies.

Lithium-ion batteries aren't simply hunks of lithium with terminals. There are other key metals required to produce them that are often overlooked. One of the most important is cobalt.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are actually named for their active ingredients. Inside each is a lithium compound that acts as the battery's cathode material. The most common lithium compound used today is lithium cobalt oxide, or LiCoO2. The cobalt oxide in the compound allows for ionic movement that enables the recharging process. So, in short, it's the cobalt in a rechargeable Li-cobalt EV battery that makes the battery rechargeable.

Engineers also sometimes use other metals, like manganese and nickel, to make different compounds that serve the same function. But LiCoO2 is the preferred compound today. About 75% of all EV batteries contain cobalt — a lot of it. The average EV battery contains over 30 pounds of cobalt. And with conservative projections of a 20-fold increase in global EV demand, forecasts show a whopping 4,500% surge in demand for cobalt between now and 2030.

But there's a major problem with cobalt supplies.

Over half of the world's cobalt resources are located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Currently, the DRC accounts for more than 50% of global production of cobalt, but the country hosts a mountain of issues that constantly threaten stable mining output.

Political instability and corruption are commonplace in the DRC, particularly in the mining sector, which accounts for a large portion of the nation's GDP. Meanwhile, substandard electrical infrastructure frequently leads to shutdowns at key cobalt mines. But that's not even the worst of it.

A new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlights the prevalence and characteristics of child labor violations taking place among the DRC's cobalt mining industry.

The OECD generally categorizes these violations as “the worst forms of child labor,” which includes being forced to mine minerals involving carrying heavy loads, digging, sifting, sorting, transporting, using explosives, washing, and working underground.

The OECD report refers to research conducted by the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Effective Global Action, which studied the prevalence, forms, and causes of child labor in 150 DRC cobalt-mining communities.

OECD says that study found that 13% of the total labor force in the mining communities is below the age of 18. And more than half (57%) are working but mostly in domestic chores. The report says of the DRC's child laborers, 41% are 10–14 years old and 8% are younger than 10. UNICEF and other international organizations estimate the total child labor force in the DRC exceeds 40,000. That's an average MLB baseball stadium completely full... of what basically amounts to child slaves.

The bottom line is the lithium-ion battery industry isn't going to be able to source cobalt from the DRC without severe public backlash, and that's already begun. Human rights advocate Ewelina Ochab just published an article this month in Forbes asking, “Are These Tech Companies Complicit in Human Rights Abuses of Child Cobalt Miners in Congo?”

As mentioned, half of the world's cobalt resources are located in the DRC. The other half is distributed around the rest of the world. And it's these cobalt resources — non-DRC cobalt — that are rapidly becoming the focus for savvy investors.

Cobalt is also found in Australia, Cuba, the Philippines, Canada, Russia, Madagascar, China, and elsewhere... including the good ole United States. The U.S. ranks about 10th (depending on the source) on the list of countries with the largest cobalt reserves.

Domestic supply of cobalt would be great for domestic consumers — avoiding DRC suppliers and any potential trade war troubles at the same time. However, there are no active cobalt mines operating in America today; 100% of the cobalt consumed in the United States is imported.

There are a few companies trying to change that. And one of them is getting ready to go into production soon. When it does, it will be the only cobalt mine in the country. My colleague Keith Kohl has put together an entire report on U.S. cobalt mining, which I urge you to read here.

Until next time,
Luke Burgess Signature
Luke Burgess

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As an editor at Energy and Capital, Luke’s analysis and market research reach hundreds of thousands of investors every day. Luke is also a contributing editor of Angel Publishing’s Bull and Bust Report newsletter. There, he helps investors in leveraging the future supply-demand imbalance that he believes could be key to a cyclical upswing in the hard asset markets. For more on Luke, go to his editor’s page.

P.S. Here's that link to the University of Bristol's promotional video for its nuclear-powered batteries.

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