Every step closer to a sustainable, carbon-free future brings another set of problems to solve.
For example, wind power can generate pollution-free electricity, but turbines kill birds and must be disposed of after twenty years. Large-scale solar installations take up sensitive environmental habitats, and solar panels are produced with fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. Even the innocuous but ubiquitous cell phones create environmental problems related to their manufacturing, recycling, or disposal.
The latest technology breakthroughs in energy innovation face a similar dilemma. Electric vehicle (EV) production is taking off because their popularity is increasing. But the materials used in EV batteries are problematic. Specifically, cobalt is an essential metal in today’s EV batteries, and its extraction is fraught with environmental and humanitarian issues.
As EV numbers continue to surge, the world must grapple with these challenges for the industry to be truly sustainable.
Why is Cobalt Valuable?
Most consumers are blissfully ignorant about the details of the products they love to use. For example, most don't know how a cell phone or a computer or a television are made, what basic raw materials they are composed of, what environmental issues are created by the extraction of these materials, or what ethical problems are caused by their manufacturing processes.
EVs are no exception. Everyone would love to drive them and whisk past the gas station. But few have an idea about what they are made of or what problems they may cause.
Take, for example, cobalt. It appears in the 27th position on the periodic table of elements, where it rests comfortably in good company between Iron (Fe) and Nickel (Ni), which are in the 26th and 28th positions, respectively.
Cobalt has a lot of valuable uses, including commercial, industrial, and military applications. Many of these uses are strategic and critical, such as magnets, jet turbines, and cancer treatments. It is even used in paint, ink, and varnish dye for porcelain and ceramics.
Cobalt is most commonly used as an essential element in the cathode of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which powers EVs. Other materials, like nickel and aluminum, can perform the same function but less effectively.
Cobalt is extracted on every continent of the world except the Arctic. There is even cobalt on the ocean floor.
The surging growth of EV production is exacerbating some of the problems associated with the extraction process of cobalt in certain countries with large deposits.
One of the largest deposits can be found in a region known as the Central African Copperbelt.
One of the largest deposits can be found in a region known as the Central African Copperbelt. It includes portions of Zambia and, most notably, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Harboring roughly half of the world's cobalt ore reserves and producing about 70% of the world's cobalt, the DRC is by far the largest producer of cobalt in the world.
Alarming Extraction Practices
The DRC’s cobalt-extraction industry exhibits critical environmental and humanitarian issues. Cobalt mining negatively impacts the natural environment as well as the human environment. The machinery and equipment used to extract cobalt, and the generation of power they consume, emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. In addition, methods such as open-pit mining, acid leaching, and vapometallurgy (a process that utilizes carbon monoxide gas to extract cobalt) release toxins into the environment through the air, land, and water.
Cobalt mining negatively impacts the natural environment as well as the human environment.
For example, blasting releases excess nitrogen into the water supply. This can lead to a process known as eutrophication, which causes excess algae growth that can choke off an ecosystem, killing plants and animals.
Dust particles released from drilling, blasting, loading and unloading, waste rocks, and other by-products contribute to air and land pollution that can cause breathing problems and environmental contamination.
Cobalt’s radioactive properties make it beneficial in the treatment of cancer. However, these same properties make cobalt very dangerous, and its unmoderated release into the environment during the mining process has the inverse effect of making it a carcinogenic pollutant.
As if these environmental effects were not harmful enough, cobalt mining also has another dark side. Much of the extraction in the DRC is done by so-called artisanal and small-scale mining, otherwise known as ASM.
Sadly, these practitioners are known to engage in human rights abuses of their workers. In addition to exposing miners to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, they also employ children as laborers.
Many observers equate the ASM practices to slavery. Siddharth Kara, a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and an expert on modern slavery, has studied the working conditions in the cobalt mines of the DRC. In his book, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives, he offers an exposé of the conditions, as told through the testimonies of the Congolese people themselves. He describes the environment for workers in the harshest teams, calling them "absolutely subhuman, gut-wrenching conditions.”
Forbes Magazine reports that Pope Francis reacted similarly on a recent visit to the DRC, calling the working conditions “terrible forms of exploitation, unworthy of humanity and of creation.” Furthermore, he implored the foreign corporations that own many of the mines to “stop choking Africa.”
With all its faults, can cobalt mining in the DRC become a sustainable industry? Demand for the mineral will continue to rise globally, as EVs and other battery-powered technology take an ever-expanding role in the world’s fight against climate change.
Cobalt is a valuable raw material for the DRC. It brings essential commerce, wealth, and opportunity to the country. Yet, according to the World Bank, the DRC is one of the five poorest countries on the globe. Many of its low-income families are employed by the ASMs, and their employment, no matter how dangerous, is a lifeline to economic sustenance and prosperity.
With all this in mind, efforts are underway to make cobalt mining in the DRC more humane and environmentally responsible. The World Economic Forum offers several recommendations for addressing the most pernicious effects of cobalt mining. It outlines these recommendations in a white paper published in 2020.
The white paper recommendations include what is described as the “formalization” of a traditionally informal economy. This means adopting common and accepted standards, metrics, monitoring, assessment, and information-sharing to ensure all stakeholders are engaged and working toward the same goals. This is a long-handed way of saying that the ASMs should be regulated and subject to strong oversight.
The concepts of formalization and other regulatory reforms face no shortage of obstacles. Resistance to regulation from the mining industry and corruption within the national government top the list. It should also be noted that Chinese companies have an outsized presence in the DRC cobalt mining industry. Their cooperation and support are essential for any reforms to work.
Experts in the field are also exploring alternatives to cobalt. For example, nickel and manganese can be used as substitutes for cobalt in the EV battery cathodes. Some researchers are even exploring battery technology that avoids the use of these materials at all.
Finally, some critics argue these efforts are an exercise in “problem shifting.” Substituting alternative minerals creates new and sometimes worse environmental problems. The only real solution would be to limit the use of EVs and vehicles through urban planning that reduces dependence on individual vehicles and relies more on public transit and other forms of mobility that are not harmful to the environment.
But judging from the continuous tremendous global popularity of vehicles and growing popularity of EVs, a solution that falls somewhere short of this extreme is probably more feasible.
*Rick Laezman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California, US. He has a passion for energy efficiency and innovation. He has been covering renewable power and other related subjects for more than ten years.