Alternatives to Cobalt MiningAs the demand for electric cars increases, so does the need for the controversial car battery mineral: cobalt. Cobalt is an essential mineral in lithium-ion batteries. These batteries help power “electric cars, computers and cellphones.” The demand for cobalt is steadily increasing with the rising sales of electric vehicles, which promises a positive environmental impact. However, cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has seen frequent cases of child labor, accidental deaths and violence between miners and security personnel of mining companies. Tesla, the best seller of electric cars in 2020, is looking for alternatives to cobalt mining with plans to eradicate the mineral from its batteries entirely.

Problems in Cobalt Mining

More than 70% of global cobalt comes from the DRC. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is responsible for producing 15% to 30% of Congolese cobalt. Over the years, human rights activists have reported strong concerns of human rights violations in mining operations. Activists have pressed for urgent attention and alternatives to cobalt mining.

In 2018, roughly 60 million Congolese people lived in conditions of extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 a day. Because of this poverty, ASM cannot be entirely shut down as it is the primary source of income for many Congolese people. Furthermore, removing ASM is impossible because of its involvement in the complexity of the cobalt supply chain.

Miners in the DRC, including children, work in harsh and hazardous conditions. About 100,000 cobalt miners use hand-operated tools and dig hundreds of feet underground. Death and injury are common occurrences and extensive mining exposes local communities to toxic metals that are linked to breathing problems and birth defects.

Tesla’s Plan

Panasonic, Tesla’s battery cell supplier, wants cobalt-free batteries to be ready and available for Tesla cars within the next two to three years. The cathode of lithium-ion batteries used to consist of 100% cobalt. Over the years, Panasonic has reduced the amount of cobalt to 5%. Although reducing the use of cobalt improves the environment and decreases the cost of production, it also makes batteries more difficult to produce.

Panasonic recently partnered with Redwood Materials. Redwood Materials is a recycling startup that was established by J.B. Straubel, former Tesla chief technical officer. The startup recycles battery scraps and electronics to save and reuse materials such as “nickel, cobalt, aluminum, copper” and more. As part of the partnership, Panasonic would like to reuse these materials in its battery manufacturing.

Tesla is making efforts to look for alternatives to cobalt mining. However, a massive increase in the production of batteries has created a higher demand for the mineral. In 2020, Tesla secured a deal with Swiss mining giant Glencore. Although Glencore gets most of its cobalt from the DRC, Tesla has stipulated in its contract that suppliers use “conflict-free” minerals. The contract states that it is essential that the minerals procured “do not benefit armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Until Tesla can run its own battery manufacturing or until Panasonic can effectively produce cobalt-free batteries for Tesla’s electric vehicles, the company will have to continue procuring cobalt for its batteries from the DRC.

Solutions to Corruption in Cobalt Mining

While Tesla’s plan for cobalt reduction in its batteries is a promising start in the search for alternatives to cobalt mining, there is also the solution of “ASM formalization.” Some companies have used ASM formalization to regulate their cobalt sourcing. Different methods of this formalization include:

  • Putting forth regulations for mining methods and working conditions.
  • Establishing ASM regulations with fundamental stakeholders for mine safety and child labor and ensuring that cobalt is obtained responsibly.
  • Formally recognizing ASM and monitoring compliance with regulations to ensure human rights are protected.

The DRC government has put in place a Mining Code and has designated specific areas of land for ASM. However, full implementation of ASM formalization will require the aid of private companies. Although regulating the mining industry in the DRC is challenging, there are several ASM formalization pilot projects that the country can learn from. With the help of these projects and the support of companies like Tesla, the DRC is on its way to addressing the root causes of human rights issues in the mining sector.

Addison Franklin
Photo: Flickr