Cobalt is an Essential Component in EV Batteries, But is it Ethical to Mine It?


In the global rush to produce Electric Vehicles, many battery manufacturers have relied on cobalt to improve the performance of batteries.

Cobalt has a wide variety of industrial applications

1.       Aerospace and Defense: Cobalt-based alloys are used in jet engines and gas turbine components due to their high-temperature strength, corrosion resistance, and wear resistance. It is also used in the production of armor plating and ammunition.

2.       Batteries: Cobalt is a critical component in the production of lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used in portable electronics, electric vehicles (EVs), and energy storage systems. Cobalt helps improve the energy density, stability, and overall performance of these batteries.

3.       Superalloys: Cobalt-based superalloys are used in gas turbines, aircraft engines, and other high-temperature applications. These alloys offer excellent strength, corrosion resistance, and thermal stability, making them suitable for extreme conditions.

4.       Catalysts: Cobalt compounds act as catalysts in various chemical reactions. They are used in the production of petroleum, petrochemicals, and pharmaceuticals. Cobalt catalysts are also employed in the hydrogenation process to convert vegetable oils into margarine and shortenings.

5.       Magnets: Cobalt is a key component in the production of high-performance magnets, such as samarium-cobalt (SmCo) and neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) magnets. These magnets are used in electric motors, generators, speakers, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.

6.       Pigments and Dyes: Cobalt compounds, particularly cobalt blue and cobalt green, are used as pigments in ceramics, glass, and paints. Cobalt-based dyes are also utilized in the textile industry.

7.       Hard Metals: Cobalt is combined with tungsten carbide to create cemented carbides or hard metals. These materials are used in cutting tools, drilling bits, and wear-resistant parts for machinery and equipment.

8.       Chemical Industry: Cobalt compounds are utilized in various chemical processes and industries. For example, cobalt salts are employed in electroplating, metal surface treatment, and the production of catalysts and drying agents.

These are just a few examples of the industrial applications of cobalt. It is important to note that the demand for cobalt is also influenced by other factors, such as technological advancements, environmental considerations, and market dynamics.

The Human Cost of Mining Cobalt

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the world’s largest supplier of cobalt. According to an NPR report and other sources, cobalt is mined in the DRC under “modern-day slavery” conditions. Workers toil in open pits extracting cobalt ore with shovels or pieces of rebar, earning just a few dollars each day.

Siddharth Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is the author of Cobalt Red, a book that exposes subhuman working conditions for cobalt miners in the DRC. Kara says the mining industry has ravaged the landscape of the DRC. Millions of trees have been cut down, the air around mines is hazy with dust and grit, and the water has been contaminated with toxic effluents from the mining processing. What’s more, he says, “Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe — and there are hundreds of thousands of poor Congolese people touching and breathing it day in and day out. Young mothers with babies strapped to their backs, all breathing in this toxic cobalt dust.”

Can Cobalt Be Replaced in the Production of EV Batteries?

Yes, it is possible to manufacture electric vehicle (EV) batteries without using cobalt. While cobalt has been traditionally used in lithium-ion batteries due to its high energy density and stability, there is ongoing research and development focused on reducing or eliminating the cobalt content in EV batteries. There are a few approaches being explored:

1.       Nickel-Rich Cathodes: One approach is to increase the nickel content in the cathode materials of the battery. Nickel offers a high energy density and is more abundant than cobalt. However, increasing the nickel content can lead to challenges such as reduced stability and increased susceptibility to thermal runaway. Researchers are actively working to overcome these challenges and optimize nickel-rich cathode chemistries.

2.       Cobalt Substitutes: Another approach involves finding suitable cobalt substitutes. Some researchers are investigating materials such as manganese, iron, and aluminum as potential substitutes for cobalt in cathode compositions. However, these substitutes often have trade-offs in terms of energy density, stability, and overall battery performance.

3.       Solid-State Batteries: Solid-state batteries, which use solid electrolytes instead of liquid electrolytes, have the potential to reduce or eliminate cobalt usage. These batteries utilize different cathode chemistries and are still under development. Solid-state batteries offer advantages such as improved safety, higher energy density, and potentially lower cobalt requirements.

It’s worth noting that the shift toward cobalt-free or low-cobalt batteries is a gradual process. Cobalt reduction or elimination involves not only technological advancements but also considerations of cost, performance, safety, and sustainability. The industry is actively working to develop more cobalt-efficient or cobalt-free battery chemistries to enhance the sustainability and accessibility of EVs.

How are Cobalt Mining Companies Performing?

The top cobalt mining company is Glencore (GLNCY). The company has been range-bound between $9 and $14.40 going back to 2022. Price action has been extremely choppy as shown on the daily chart.

 Glencore Daily Chart (Source: Tradingview)

Stay tuned to Global Investment Daily as we continue to monitor developments in the EV industry.

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