The modern day human is inundated with and surrounded by technology powered by the lithium-ion battery, enabling the green technology revolution.
Currently, there is an impasse with the materials used in these batteries – specifically, cobalt. Once used for colouring objects blue it is a critical element in defence and aerospace applications and battery storage technology. Most of it comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where humanitarian issues abound with the mining of it and other “conflict minerals” like tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold.
What is it?
Cobalt is an element that is integral to the correct functioning of many modern applications. From lithium-ion batteries in many devices and electric vehicles (EVs), energy storage systems, consumer electronics, and superalloys it is no wonder the U.S. and the EU consider it a strategic and critical raw material.
The benefits for lithium-ion batteries with cobalt include:
- Cobalt’s tight physical molecular structure is robust and resists wear allowing batteries to completely charge and discharge multiple times over long periods of time. This is coupled with low self-discharge and high discharge voltage within the battery.
- With a melting point of 1,493 celsius lithium-ion batteries are safe even at high temperatures. It is able to combine with other metals while improving the other, and is able to keep its ferromagnetic traits at high temperatures adding more stability to rechargeable batteries.
It has two main applications: chemical and metallurgical.
- Chemical cobalt is mainly used for rechargeable batteries with it taking up 78% of demand and 50% of global cobalt demand. The rise of electric vehicles, energy storage systems, and electronic devices makes the rechargeable battery segment the fastest growing. Its properties mean power storage lasts longer, is safer, and lighter with higher capacities.
- Superalloys with exceptional mechanical strength, heat-resistance, and corrosion-resistant are made with cobalt making it integral to the aerospace, defence, and power generation sectors. It is also utilized in magnets, carbides, and diamond tools, polyester, and ceramics.
In the past it was mainly used as a blue colour; with WWII the need for jet engines and gas turbines skyrocketed, and the demand of cobalt metal did as well. Nickel metal also came into large demand as it was used in stainless steel. As such, the mining efforts for the two similarly increased.
There are new uses being found constantly for cobalt metals with its uses in electronics and rechargeable batteries. Both the EU and USA class it as a critical raw material, with the CDI reporting that 50% of the global production ends up in rechargeable batteries. The ever-present lithium-ion battery is where you’ll find cobalt in the cathode; it is also found in portable devices, cutting tools, in electric vehicles, and stationary batteries as it is integral to nickel-cadmium (NiCd) and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH).
Cobalt oxide is present in alloys used for aerospace, prosthetics, automobiles, and industrial equipment. It can also be found in glass, porcelain, ceramics, paints, and inks in the form of a very bright blue. Healthcare has its uses with cobalt metal isotopes detecting tumors and radiotherapy usage; it can also be used to detect vitamin B12 absorption and deficiency as cobalt is the centre of the vitamin B13 molecule.
Electric vehicles alone are estimated to need 314,000 tonnes of cobalt by 2030 – 314% of the global supply in 2017. Adding in other markets increase this number to 368% or 500,000 tonnes of 2018 mined production.
Even in a greener world cobalt finds its place as it is able to desulfurize natural gas and refined petroleum products, and act as a catalyst in producing recyclable plastics.
Where is it?
Found mainly with nickel and copper mineral deposits there are many varieties of cobalt ores that are mined that include nickel cobalt sulfide, nickel cobalt laterite, and copper cobalt oxide.
What is less known is how it comes to be and its current supply chain, with mining mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
The DRC produced 70% of globally mined cobalt in 2019; most of it went to China who lead importing mined cobalt and exporting refined cobalt. The supply chain is heavily controlled as 8 of the 14 largest cobalt mines are owned by Chinese companies.
Due to only a small percentage of total mine revenues coming from cobalt production there is difficulty in securing financing if you were to just base it on production – despite its price appreciation and future demand growth.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
In the DRC low labour costs, loose regulations, and poor governance result in labourers using primitive methods of extraction and mining, and cheap cobalt. As a result ethical and humanitarian issues that include child labour, corruption, crime, and poverty are currently part of the current cobalt life cycle.
Those who eke a living out of mining for conflict metals and the like come from surrounding impoverished villages with nowhere else to go; they do their work in harsh and dangerous conditions for ~ $3 a day. Calling themselves “Creusers” (french for diggers) they use broken tools, primitive methods, and little to no protection – half of which are children with some as young as six. Exposure to the metals results in illnesses ranging from thyroid conditions, breathing problems, and brith defects to conditions so rare that include mermaid syndrome and holoprosencephaly.
Recovery and Purification
The process to obtain cobalt ores require many steps of separation and purification that, without proper protection, can cause harm and illness.
The purification and recovery stepsare usually very difficult. Nickel and cobalt are found together not only in the Earth but on the periodic table. Their similar aqueous nature is a result from them both being divalent (having a chemical valence of two) hexahydrated (containing six molecules of water) ions in dilute aqueous solutions.
You must remember that the workers conducting these processes usually do so not in some safe high-tech refinery or factory but outside with no protection, no training, and no oversight.
Copper-cobalt oxides and sulfides involve recovery from copper flotation concentrates via roast-leach-electrowin (RLE), roasting the ore for sulfides, and a sulfuric acid atmospheric leach and direct electrowinning of copper. Next, impurity removal, cobalt hydroxide precipitation, and re-leaching and cobalt electrowinning is required for recovery.
A general number of steps can be surmised for cobalt recovery:
- Removal of impurities with CaCO3 limestone or Ca(OH)2 milk of lime
- Extraction of solvents (SX) involving the removal of copper, zinc, manganese, and cobalt-nickel separation.
- Exchange of ion (IX) with removal and polishing of zinc, copper, and nickel.
- Final purification and cobalt recovery through re-leaching and electrowinning cobalt
Lithium batteries with cobalt in them have 3 key parts:
- The electrode that carries a positive charge is the cathode made of lithium metal oxide combinations.
- The anode electrode carrying a negative charge, usually made of graphite.
- The lithium salt in either liquid or gel form allowing ions to flow both ways from cathode and anode is the electrolyte.
It is through cobalt that your smartphone can fit in your hand and (maybe) last a day without charging, how your laptop can actually fit your lap, and how electric vehicles are able to perform.
Electric Vehicle charging stations work either of two ways
- Alternating Current (AC) chargers provides current that sometimes go the other way.
- Direct Current (DC) chargers only provides a current moving one way.
The Future of Cobalt
The future of ethical cobalt mining is in progress as electric vehicle manufacturers and miners partner with organizations to make a difference to the unethical mining practices that include child labour and corruption that take place in cobalt mines currently in the DRC. These include:
- Fair Cobalt Alliance
- Responsible Minerals Initiative
- Responsible Cobalt initiative
- Clean Cobalt Initiative
Some companies are showing progress in clearing up the process that cobalt undertakes to reach its various ends.
- Blockchain technology is being utilized by Ford, Huayou Cobalt, IBM, LG Chem, and RCS Global to improve transparency and better find the DRC sources.
- Morocco’s Bou Azzar Mine will have its cobalt given to BMW for a $110 million deal so as to avoid DRC-sourced cobalt.
- Tesla will buy 6000 tonnes from Glencore that finances North America’s first cobalt refinery.
Blockchain is being heralded as a way to make each stage of the conflict metals supply chain transparent as much as possible. While it won’t replace humans’ due diligence the data gathered at every stage of a metal’s life cycle will leave a trail that cannot be hidden or changed by anyone.
Each party involved can be validated against developing sourcing standards from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. IBM, Ford, LG Chem, Huayou Cobalt, and RCS Global are parties in a blockchain pilot that aims to achieve that end, and improve on the model for future supply chains to be faster and more transparent
To establish independence from imported cobalt the United States has declared it as a critical mineral; local sources and reliable production will try to lower its dependency of 78% net import.
Cobalt has come a long way; from its use as a colorant to powering the devices of today and tomorrow – there can be no denying that without it the world would be in a different place. Despite its incredible benefits there are those who toil day and night in harsh conditions for nothing compared to the end users and manufacturers so heavily reliant on it. It is up to all of us – from stakeholders, the public, the media, regulatory and legislative bodies, non-government organizations,, producers, manufactuers, and consumer groups whether or not distant and uneeded human suffering accompanies technological advances elsewhere in the world.
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Visual Capitalist. 2020. Lithium-Cobalt Batteries: Powering the Electric Vehicle Revolution. [online] Available at: <https://www.visualcapitalist.com/lithium-cobalt-batteries-powering-the-electric-vehicle-revolution/>.
Visual Capitalist. n.d. Ethical Supply: The Search for Cobalt Beyond the Congo. [online] Available at: <https://www.visualcapitalist.com/ethical-supply-the-search-for-cobalt-beyond-the-congo/>.
Wollschlaeger, S., 2017. Why the world is demanding more cobalt, and why new methods for cobalt recovery are the answer.. [online] Blog.emew.com. Available at: <https://blog.emew.com/what-drives-future-cobalt-recovery-and-production>.
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