One of the most exciting developments in green energy is an electricity grid that harnesses the power of sunlight.
So when researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory recently found a new source of cobalt – a key component of solar cells – the news was cause for celebration.
“There is an incredible amount of excitement in the energy community because it’s an important new discovery,” said Sreekumaran Ramanathan, a physicist at the lab.
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But within days of the announcement, stories started to emerge about the fact that the researchers had obtained the cobalt from Chinese mines and were not sure they could release the information because of that country’s leadership crackdown on the mining industry.
This provoked a strong reaction from a now-infamous climate-denier, Donald Trump’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who said the discovery “could have national security implications.”
The paper describing the discovery, written by six Los Alamos scientists, was published in the journal Science. It was scrutinized by other scientists, who thought it had been ready to be published for years, but was suddenly pulled.
“It’s quite extraordinary the real decision to pull the paper was made last month. It’s a peculiar thing,” said Christopher Chivers, a renewable energy expert at MIT who was not part of the paper.
There’s no dispute that cobalt prices have risen substantially in the past few years as China’s demand for cobalt increased, and Western cobalt miners faced higher costs from China’s increased mining activity. The cobalt supply is currently 20% to 30% short of what’s needed to support new technologies, according to McAfee, a cybersecurity company.
These new research findings “potentially could be critical to the future cost of solar energy,” Torsten Markle, a researcher at Oxford University, told CNN Tech.
Scientists from the lab have been investigating alternative sources of cobalt ever since they discovered that there is not enough natural cobalt to feed a solar industry that has mushroomed around the world.
Ramanathan, the lead researcher, first predicted back in 2014 that cobalt could be found in empty oil wells, water pipes and even plants.
Research sites that have now uncovered cobalt in water pipes and then buried in mined areas by a virus serve as examples. The researchers still don’t know where the cobalt came from, but they’re hopeful that nearby water sources could be mined in the future.
The actual cobalt in the study was spotted because of very dark patterns that appeared in metallic cobalt compounds. This left them with two choices: either they were not sure it came from natural sources, or they knew it was produced in some kind of carbonate or mineral. Cobalt is the most widely used metal in the solar industry, and nearly all of it comes from fossil fuel-burning minerals mined in the last 30 years.
“It’s not what you would call a solar power plant. It’s literally just a fossil fuel mine,” said Markle, an expert on cobalt, its supply and demand.
Scientists first found more than 10 kilograms of cobalt in water pipes in 2016, but this new research results in much more material.
Once more cobalt is extracted from water pipes, Ramanathan’s team will test it for its potential as a clean energy source.
The team may also follow up with further research to determine how many additional metals – such as platinum and palladium – can be found in similar conditions, and what that means for solar energy production.
The original study had been submitted to Science nearly two years ago and was initially shared in 2017 with the journal’s editorial board and funding organizations before being pulled.
But that doesn’t mean the engineers at Los Alamos aren’t still pursuing cobalt research.
As of Wednesday, the paper was still stuck with the journal’s editors and had not been released to the public. But the company that published the scientific results, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said it would be released “as soon as practical” after publication.
“The work is being expedited, since it’s important that the legitimate scientific and national security concerns be addressed,” Oak Ridge said in a statement.