Cobalt: the indispensable resource in batteries
In modern high tech products, cobalt is one of the resources that are indispensable. Its main uses are displayed in the chart below. Currently, cobalt is a crucial ingredient for the manufacturing of all types of Lithium-Ion batteries, which is the main battery type used in electric vehicles. Yet, cobalt is considered as one of the most critical materials due to the high production dominance by the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is primarily mined and produced as a by-product of nickel and copper production and hence its production is dependent on the mining and extraction of these commodities.
Even though the DR Congo is the country in which the largest amount of cobalt is produced, foreign companies own most of the mines or at least possess the mining concessions. Eight major global players produce about three fourth of global cobalt with Glencore being the largest, primarily mining it in the DR Congo. Refining is primarily done in China. The main countries that mine Cobalt are displayed in the chart below.
Criticality and Issues
The Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of the global cobalt production is taking place, was battered by several wars in the last decades, genocide and a poor political and economic framework. Furthermore, so-called artisanal mines, which often are connotated with human trafficking, forced labor, child labor, and completely inadequate technical and social working conditions, currently make up around 10% of DRC production.
The scent of cobalt being a conflict mineral, associated with illegal mining, environmental pollution, corruption, forced and child labour and possibly other issues is still a major concern globally. Various regulations have been introduced which address the conflict materials 3TG (tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold), requiring companies and their suppliers to provide reporting on raw materials if they are obtained from the DR Congo. Data and real outcome of the Act remain diverse; however, results suggest that some companies put a de facto embargo on 3TG from the DR Congo, which deprived the local people of desperately needed income (after long years of civil war) and thus lacking income led to increased poverty and in turn to higher child mortality – just the opposite of what was intended. This shows that even legal measures alone do not guarantee a positive turn.
Another often neglected problem are epidemics: on May 08, 2018, a new Ebola epidemic has been declared in the DRC which is a potential threat to the people living there and thus mining could be hampered. Until today, each recent Ebola epidemic did not decisively impact raw materials extraction; however, in case diseases spread farther, this may be the case.
Several operative mines are trying to increase production and many new or old mines are under investigation for a re-opening. How much cobalt these mines will eventually produce is highly speculative despite the numbers published. It will be a tug between prices, material quantity demand per battery, increased efficiencies in batteries, the importance of primary material production (i.e. nickel, copper) and a potential paradigm or technology change. New battery types may enter the market in near future, e.g. Lithium-Air-type and fuel cell technology. Even though these battery types do not require cobalt, expensive platinum could be replaced in fuel cells by cobalt to make the systems cheaper, leading to a higher amount of cobalt used again. The issue remains very complex and it will probably need some time until a reliable trend evolves.
adapted from Dr. Volker Zepf
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