Cobalt: A Crucial Conundrum
June 2019
Ethical controversies might be nothing new in the mining industry, but very few topics have caught the attention of businesses and consumers in the way that cobalt production has. In 2016, a wave of media coverage swept the Democratic Republic of Congo into the public eye, coining the phrase “blood batteries” to refer to technology that contains cobalt mined in the poverty-riddled country.

The phrase itself, “blood batteries”, mimics the phrase coined by the phenomena’s precursor in the early 2000’s: “blood diamonds”. A series of controversies about diamonds sourced in war zones, produced by companies exploiting underpaid and at-risk workers in mines with staggeringly-unsafe conditions, and generating profit to fund conflicts, led to widespread overhauls of the diamond supply chain and the UN itself defining and tracking the sourcing of this conflict-sourced commodity. Now, cobalt—and the DRC, where half of the world’s supply and more of its total reserves are sourced—is in the spotlight.

The story will be familiar to anyone aware of the characteristics of mining undertaken in under-regulated regions with high poverty. At least 20% of the country’s cobalt production comes from low-paid workers undertaking long shifts of manual labour, recruited from adults and children alike. There is little—if any—safety supervision or regulatory oversight, and often those workers who do not become directly injured instead suffer from persistent health issues—including lung disease and elevated levels of metals in their blood.

Cobalt is not the only rare earth metal—or even the only battery metal—sourced in such a way, but it is the one that has captured the most attention—and the largest reaction. Proposed solutions have ranged from tighter oversight on mines to extensive databases and blockchain tracking of cobalt production—and a spate of proposed technologies that promise to oust cobalt from its position as a necessary component of safe, small, and energy-dense batteries. As an additional motivator, several high-volume cobalt consumers have predicted that, much like nickel and other battery metals, cobalt demand is at an imminent risk of outstripping supply, even in some considerable upside scenarios.

Initial developments have seen Apple, Samsung, HP and Sony—amongst other tech companies—agree to the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, which is a set of rules compiled to eliminate child labour from supply chains. The London Metal Exchange has created a set of standards to ensure all brands listed on its exchange will meet ‘responsible sourcing guidelines’ and some companies, like BMW, have pivoted away from DRC cobalt, instead purchasing the cobalt they need for electric vehicle batteries from mines in Australia and Morocco.

Looking increasingly to technological solutions, several companies—including Volkswagen—have joined an industry initiative that has promised a more “sustainable and transparent” supply chain—via blockchain. AME has so far avoided covering the proposal of blockchain-based cobalt tracking—given the high likelihood of the endeavour being a buzzword-swamped washout with severe logical impracticalities—but a large number of automotive companies appear convinced that blockchain’s ability to store secure, trackable, and unalterable data will allow them to ensure their supply chains do not include any exploitatively-sourced cobalt. Whether this is true remains to be seen.

KoBold Metals has taken a different approach, receiving funding from Bill & Melinda Gates-owned Breakthrough Energy Ventures to use “machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence” on geological and geochemical data in order to locate new, non-DRC-located cobalt sources—taking the path of avoiding the DRC altogether.

Other companies are not convinced that mining cobalt is necessary at all—instead sourcing it directly from the ocean. There’s a lot of cobalt spread throughout the waters of the world, and it might be feasible to place specially-designed spheres that absorb cobalt from their surrounding waters. It would take more than 70 of these very expensive installations, however, to supply around one-quarter of the world’s 2017 cobalt demand—to say nothing of projected future demand.

There are numerous other ways we might avoid cobalt usage; a litany of strange, unconventional battery technologies have been offered to the market over the last five years—with each being seemingly more expensive and less scalable than the last.

Some teams have reported success in making fluoride-based batteries that, unlike prior models, can operate at room temperatures rather than 150 degrees Celsius—a marked improvement, but not quite enough to make it to market.

Toyota and Hyundai to push hydrogen fuel cell technology, with several models of hydrogen-fuelled cars sold in Japan and Europe—although total sales numbers remain in the thousands. aiming for publicity with an ambitious project: a fuel-cell-powered moon rover, expected to launch in 2029—a long way after the projected cobalt crunch. A research team from Lancaster University claims to have discovered a new material and construction method that could vastly increase the efficiency and decrease the cost of hydrogen fuel tank construction—potentially seeing prices one-fifth of a lithium-ion battery.

And, most speculatively, a division of the US’s Army Research lab has publicised results of their new lightweight, water-based, energy-dense batteries with no flammable components, no nickel, and no cobalt. While championing a 25% higher energy density than the li-ion battery you likely have in your phone, its relative expense and short lifespan might not make it a feasible replacement without significant further refinements. 

Cobalt remains essential, at least for now. While a surprising upside scenario could see it unseated in favour of any one of several alternatives—or see its production shifted to more ethically-comfortable methods—the most likely scenario remains one of gradual change. The world wants more cobalt, and in the midst of a supply crunch there will always be someone willing to turn a blind eye and let extra cobalt into the supply chain—regardless of the source.