Just when you thought it could not get any worse, along came cobalt. Up to 15kg of cobalt is used in an EV. By far the biggest producer is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They account for 70% of the total cobalt mined. Looking at reserves, however, the picture is a bit different. Australia has the second most reserves of cobalt.
Mining is carried out both on the surface and underground. In most cases, it is a by-product of copper mining. Following the actual extraction of the ore, it is refined. Extraction from sulfide ores is done using floatation, sulfide smelting to converter matte and later refining of the matte to recover cobalt. The extraction from lateritic ores is by leaching, sulfide precipitation, re-dissolution, cobalt solvent extraction and then electrowinning or hydrogen reduction according to Google.
As mentioned, 70% of the production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The country has been subject to ethnic conflicts, Ebola and corruption. 15% to 30% is produced by artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) who earn $2 to $3 on a good day. What that means is that it is often a single person, families or small groups of people who work together to mine cobalt. As you can imagine, OH&S and environmental protection are not their first priority. China holds a dominant position in cobalt mining in the DRC. Through funding and bribery, they have built a position of strength in directing the mining. Most of the cobalt produced ends up in China.
No one knows exactly how many children work in Congo’s mining industry. UNICEF in 2012 estimated that 40,000 boys and girls do so in the country’s south. Conditions are little better than slavery. A report on the risks associated with DRC cobalt mining said that human rights abuses are widespread in the sector and can occur within both industrial and artisanal mines. According to the research, the country is rated “extreme risk” for child labour, modern slavery, trafficking and occupational health and safety.
It is near impossible to change the DRC production standards through any form of boycott or restriction. The source of cobalt is easily covered up.
One of the key challenges for companies is traceability. Once mined, the mineral traverses a complex supply chain that can include the smelting together of cobalt extracted from both artisanal and industrial mines, which is then transported overseas. China, which produces over 40 per cent of the world’s refined cobalt, imports over 75 per cent of the raw cobalt it uses from DR Congo. The refined metal is sold on to battery manufacturers, which then sell their products to multinational brands.
No laws or widely acknowledged partnerships or initiatives exist to support increased traceability for cobalt mined in DR Congo — unlike those in place for 3TG (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) conflict minerals. It is this lack of visibility down the supply chain that leaves companies exposed to the breadth of social and environmental issues linked to cobalt production.
Source: Stefan Sabo-Walsh March 29, 2017
Here are some of the incidents related to cobalt mining”
- In the 1960s a brewer in Canada added cobalt to beer to improve the head. They noticed an increase in fatal heart attacks from heavy drinkers. Further research showed it also had an adverse effect on eyesight and hearing as well as causing rashes. These are all happening in the DRC.
- In Australia, the Whim Creek mine was fined for polluting water after a flood with cobalt, copper and other metals.
- In Cuba, aerial photos of a mine show what researchers have described as a “lunar-like landscape” devoid of life over 570 hectares (1,408 acres), while they say their research shows pollution plumes have contaminated 8km of coastline and 10km of the Cabañas River.
- In Zambia, studies of soil and mango fruit grown near copper and cobalt mines have revealed metals above the safety limit. NGOs say miners in the country are also prone to silicosis and tuberculosis.
- It is a similar story at Madagascar’s biggest foreign investment project – the $8bn (£5.9bn) Ambatovy nickel and cobalt mining complex near Toamasina, which has been blamed for air and water pollution, as well as health problems among the local population.
- The Washington Post did an investigation that traced cobalt mined from small-scale Congolese mines to a single Chinese company — Congo DongFang International Mining, part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt — that for years has supplied some of the world’s largest battery makers. They, in turn, have produced the batteries found inside products such as Apple’s iPhones
- These doctors at the University of Lubumbashi already know miners and residents are exposed to metals at levels many times higher than what is considered safe. One of their studies found residents who live near mines or smelters in southern Congo had urinary concentrations of cobalt that were 43 times as high as that of a control group, lead levels five times as high, and cadmium and uranium levels four times as high. The levels were even higher in children.
- Another study, published earlier this year, found elevated levels of metals in the mining region’s fish. A study of soil samples around mine-heavy Lubumbashi concluded the area was “among the ten most polluted areas in the world.”
I touched on the three main metals used in batteries but there are others. Graphite, manganese, cadmium and copper all have their own stories. One report on graphite says:
Research has shown that natural graphite mining can cause dust emissions, and the purification of battery-grade anode products requires high quantities of reagents such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, which may be harmful to both human health and the environment.
“Producing anode grade graphite for lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) is energy-intensive. Existing graphite supply chains often situate energy-demanding process stages in regions with low-cost energy, such as Inner Mongolia where the grid is dominated by coal and therefore has a high climate change impact per kWh,” the report reads.
On cadmium, the US Occupational Safety and Health Bureau says:
“Cadmium and its compounds are highly toxic and exposure to this metal is known to cause cancer and targets the body’s cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems.”
I doubt more than a few per cent of EV owners have ever thought of the carnage caused by mining the metals that allow them to drive around in their vehicles. The mining causes damage to the land in which the mine is located. In some cases, it destroys the water resources be they rivers, streams, oceans or subterranean storage areas. It causes workers to contract a range of diseases. It produces birth defects in future generations, and it condemns children to work in slave-type conditions.
There is little chance conditions will improve in the coming decade. Demand will increase as we demand more batteries to power more electric cars. US firm AlixPartners found the price of raw materials for batteries increased by more than 140% between March 2020 and June 2022. In roughly two years, prices are two and a half times what they were. Raw materials account for 80% of the battery cost.
We will start to improve the recycling of old batteries but given how much damage is caused by mining, does anyone believe it will be a harm-free exercise? There have been many reports of the unsafe working conditions of phone and computer recycling factories. EV batteries will be the same. And what of those components that cannot be recycled?
Another aspect that does not seem to be recognised is the recharging of batteries. It is a great thing that we are moving to solar in so many homes, but ask yourself when EV batteries are generally recharged. It is most often at night when the coal-fired power stations are at full capacity because there is no solar power available. There is something ironic about using coal to recharge electric batteries.
It may sound virtuous to buy an electric car. Virtuous until you scratch below the surface and see the damage caused by building batteries. I am not advocating turning away from electric cars. Just face the reality that millions suffer life-defining pain to build the batteries in your car.
Don’t just worry about saving the planet. Worry about saving the people who are really making a sacrifice. The ones building batteries so we can remove petrol polluting vehicles from the road. They are not doing it to save the planet. They are doing it to exist.