Dreamstime Images
Dreamstime L 159535088

Working to Reduce Cobalt Dependency in Battery Manufacturing

Jan. 11, 2021
Automakers, electronics manufacturers and mining companies work to find alternative mineral sources and effectively reduce their dependency on cobalt.

Download this article in PDF format.

An essential mineral used to make batteries for electric cars, computers and cell phones, cobalt is in high demand. According to recent projections by the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance, the demand for cobalt for use in batteries will grow fourfold by 2030 as a result of the electric vehicle boom alone.

More than 70% of the world’s cobalt produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 15 to 30% of the Congolese cobalt is produced by artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) reports.

Unfortunately, not all cobalt is fairly sourced. “For years, human rights groups have documented severe human rights issues in mining operations,” CFR states. “These human rights risks are particularly high in artisanal mines in the DRC, a country weakened by violent ethnic conflict, Ebola, and high levels of corruption. Child labor, fatal accidents, and violent clashes between artisanal miners and security personnel of large mining firms are recurrent.”

Pulling Together

With companies and consumers both paying more attention to the production and sourcing of the raw materials that go into finished goods, the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA) stands as one organization that aims to develop a supply of fairly-sourced cobalt for a variety of industries. Other founding members of the FCA include Dutch phone maker Fairphone, Signify, German EV Sono Motors, and miners Huayou Cobalt and Glencore. They have been joined by the Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI) and German powerbank hirer Lifesaver.

FCA’s ambition is to further scale its membership across the supply chain in order to increase its potential for positive impact. “Our mission is to reform the conditions for cobalt mining communities by driving improvements at ASM (artisanal or small-scale mining) mine-sites, eradicate child labor and protect children’s rights, and build diversified, resilient local mining communities,” FCA states on its website.          

With Tesla as one of its newest members, FCA is on a mission to eradicate the use of child labor, making conditions at cobalt mines safer and investing in programs to diversify local economies in mining communities. “Tesla’s membership is an important private sector addition to the FCA, which includes companies like Glencore, the world’s largest mining company by revenue and a major producer of cobalt,” Kendra Dupuy writes in Clean Cobalt? A new initiative for a key mineral in electric vehicles.”

Not New, But Definitely Relevant

The issue of conflict minerals being used to make batteries and electronic components isn’t new, but it is garnering more attention right now. In 2010, the U.S. Congress adopted the Dodd-Franklin Act. Section 1502 of the Act requires U.S.-listed private companies to disclose whether their products include “conflict minerals” sourced from the DRC. Specifically targeted were coltan, cassiterite, gold and wolframite—key elements used in mobile phones and other electronics, and the target of a global “blood phone” campaign led by civil society groups.

“Cobalt has only recently received more attention with the large global increase in sales of electric vehicles that started in 2017, particularly in China,” Dupuy writes.

Finding Alternatives

Also in September, Tesla announced it would start making electric vehicle batteries with cobalt-free cathodes. “The announcement came as part of the company’s move to make batteries in-house instead of purchasing them,” Justine Calma writes in Tesla to make EV battery cathodes without cobalt.” Because cobalt is the most expensive material used in batteries, eliminating it from the mix was expected to help  electric vehicles become as affordable as those that run on gas.

Tesla’s next line of batteries will be made with lithium, iron and phosphate, Brett Smith reports in The Shift Away from Cobalt.” The company said these batteries would be much cheaper, he adds, but the batteries typically have a reduced energy density compared to lithium-ion batteries.

“Chinese companies commonly use Lithium-iron-phosphate cells, and cynics have pointed to Tesla’s manufacturing facilities in China as the reason for the switch,” Smith writes. “However, if other electric car makers follow suit, it would considerably reduce the dependency on cobalt.”

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Supply Chain Connect, create an account today!

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.