Cobalt is with nickel and lithium is one of the essential elements in electric vehicle batteries. It is used with nickel in the cathode of batteries and represents about a quarter of the total cost of a battery. Cobalt is also the subject of serious human rights discomfort. Two-thirds of all the cobalt is found in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a civil war has been going on for decades, which are financed by the big mines for access to the rights to the precious lands which contain the cobalt. Young children are forced to work in unacceptable conditions to get cobalt in cars and smart phones.
Until recently, small electronics were driving the demand for cobalt because many small batteries still need a cathode and an anode in each one. A phone battery doesn’t need as many materials as an electric or hybrid car battery, but on the other hand, a lot more phones are made, so the difference is a matter of volume. There are around 15 billion mobile devices in the world, compared to 7.2 million electric cars.
Shortage already underway
The Financial Times reports that 176,370 tons of cobalt were produced in 2021. However, global demand last year was 192,904 tons, already exceeding what can be mined. The automotive industry alone demanded 65,036 tonnes of cobalt last year, more than a third of total demand; comparatively, smart phones accounted for only 28,660 tonnes of cobalt.
An environmental disaster
While some manufacturers, like Tesla, are trying to disassociate themselves from Cobalt with nickel-only cathodes. Russia, the world’s third-largest nickel producer, has been in complete shutdown since the start of the war with Ukraine and the price of nickel has increased sixfold over the past three months. All this without forgetting the environmental damage caused by the extraction of these minerals. If you believe the tar sands pollute, the cobalt and nickel mines are no better.
Cleaner solutions will have to be found
Right now, a huge amount of good quality cobalt is found in outdated electronic devices. From old tablet computers to laptop computers, the human race has treated lithium-ion batteries as an infinite resource when they really aren’t, or at the very least, disposable. Currently, metal recovery from smart devices is incredibly underdeveloped and involves the use of toxic acid to extract the precious metals. We may have to turn to the trash cans to recover what we have carelessly thrown there and we could build packaging that is easier to recycle, but that may not be enough to solve our problem. It will be necessary to find solutions that are less harmful to the environment and also to find a cleaner process from extraction to recovery of the product.