This article, supported by curiosity stream there’s, a small town in Germany along the Czech border, called Schneeberger. It was named after a nearby mountain that hundreds of years ago was a major mining hub along the silver road.
The silver road was not so named because it was second place to the yellow, brick road. They mined a lot of silver there. You probably figured that out. People have been mining ore from this location, going all the way back to like the Bronze Age.
In fact, some people think that it played an important role in starting the Bronze Age. Unesco actually named this a World Heritage Site. For this reason, but in the Middle Ages they were all about. The silver in this area was rich in silver ore, but there was one major problem: goblins yeah, the miners believed the caves were infested by goblins, and I thought this because when smelting or sometimes a an impurity would sneak into the process and kind of throw everything Off and sometimes miners would get sick from it.
Sometimes they’d, even die and being the Middle Ages. They blame this on goblins or kobolds in their language that they thought were pranking them by sneaking magic, goblin dust into there or the problem.
Of course was not kobolds, it was a type of metal that was bound into the ore with arsenic and sulphur, which, when smelted in an unventilated mine, made it hard to breathe to put it lightly and it wasn’t until 1735.
When swedish chemist George Brandt was able to isolate this metal that the true culprit was known, this new metal, by the way it was the first metal that had been discovered since, like ancient times, and he named that metal after those prankster kobolds that had terrorized those Miners hundreds of years before and that’s, the story of the discovery of cobalt.
In December of last year, a group called international rights advocates soup, some of the world’s largest tech companies, including Apple Dell, Microsoft, Tesla and alphabet. The parent company of Google, on behalf of 14 families, who lost loved ones and Congolese minds, the lawsuit claimed that the defendants quote are knowingly benefiting from an aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt.
A key component of every rechargeable lithium-ion battery used in electronic devices. These companies manufacture the lawsuit, goes on to describe hellish conditions where men, women and children are forced to work using Stone, Age tools, doing back-breaking work and dangerous mines that regularly collapse from $ 1 a day it’s, harrowing stuff and it’s, the first lawsuit that takes aim with the end user of the cobalt supply chain instead of the mining companies that are digging it out of the ground.
The lawsuits still pending. And there are arguments on each side as to whether or not it’s, a fair lawsuit or just an attempt to bring attention to a very serious problem. But it is a very serious problem and it brings up questions that frankly, we don’t really like to think about and it’s also been some fantastic ammunition for people who don’t want to see.
Electric vehicles succeed going as far as to calling evie batteries blood batteries, as our energy grids and transportation become more electrified. There’s, been some well-coordinated and some not so well coordinated, pushback against it.
Some of it is just a natural defensive maneuvering of a large industry trying to secure their profits and the other is just you know: identity, politics guy. I don’t like likes things, so I don’t like thing.
The fact is there’s, no perfect solution to how we produce and distribute energy. All of them have their downsides, and even if we transition completely to the most efficient form of energy possible, there’s.
Still the building out of that infrastructure that goes along with it, the construction of the infrastructure, the transportation of those materials, the extraction of those minerals, and all of that has a carbon cost to it.
Now this is not a article meant to prove that the long-term benefits of this transition outweigh the downsides. It does and it’s been proven a million times in a million other articles. This article just starts with a simple fact that it’s happening.
The transition is here and battery storage for homes, cars and grids are going to be a major part of that, and while there are new breakthroughs happening every year right now, the best thing we got going is lithium-ion batteries.
Yes, we may see a solid-state battery and carbon-dioxide batteries that are exponentially better in the coming years, but there was gon na take a long time to get to scale. For now, anyway, lithium ion is king production of lithium ion batteries is at the beginning of an s-curve market watch predicts the lithium ion market will go from 30 billion dollars in 2018 to a hundred billion dollars.
In 2026, dozens of new gigafactory sized battery production facilities are in the works right now from companies like Panasonic Toyota, LG Chem, BYD, Nissan Hitachi, Mitsubishi Sony. The list goes on and, of course, tests will just open the Shanghai Giga Factory in China.
They’ve broken ground on a new one near Berlin and there are rumors of one in Texas, the point being. We’re gon na see battery production on an unimaginable scale in the coming years. In fact, I think market watch was conservative in their estimates and well yeah.
A big part of that is EVs. We’re, also seeing accelerated production of smartphones tablets, computers, digital cameras, power tools, all of which are powered by lithium-ion, but that hasn’t stopped. The anti EB crowd from saying that these are bad, because those battery packs are made out of precious minerals and toxic chemicals that have to be dug out of the ground and they destroy the environment and employee.
You know inhumane working conditions, they’re, go bad and it’s, not an unfair point to a point, although I do have to say it’s hard to take those concerns seriously when it’s. Coming from people who have not had any problem with the endless oil spills and pipeline bursts and fuel tank leaks that are associated with oil yeah suddenly, when it’s, battery production, they just get so gall-darn concerned with the fling and finding an environment.
But the fact of the matter is, as we make this transition, we do need to be aware of these issues. It doesn’t. Do us any good to pretend they don’t exist, so let’s. Just take a look at this as objectively as we possibly can, how big of a problem is, it is it sustainable and what are some of the solutions around it now there are a lot of different types of chemistry’s and lithium-ion batteries, but For the sake of simplicity or relative simplicity, anyway, let’s.
Focus on the big three L, Co, NC m and n CA. Lc o stands for lithium, cobalt oxide as a cobalt oxide, cathode and graphite anode. The cathode is made up of about 60 % cobalt. It’s used mostly in mobile phones, laptops tablets and cameras, and it’s got a specific energy of 150 to 200 watt hours per kilogram.
Those specialty cells can get up to 240 and it & # 39. S got a cycle life of 500 to 1000 recharges. By the way you’re gon na hear the term specific energy and specific power quite a bit in here. Specific energy is basically related to the energy density like how much energy the battery can hold specific power relates to how quickly the battery can discharge.
You know how much power you can get out of it. These are two different things in different batteries have different levels of that. I had to look it up, so I’m, just passing it on to you Elsie. Oh batteries are great for smaller electronics because they hold a lot of energy, but they don’t discharge it very quickly.
You know a cell phone doesn & # 39. T really need a big burst of power. It’s. Just more of a trickle, the downsides of lco is they have a relatively short cycle life which anybody who’s watching this on a device older than a year can probably attest, and the other downside is cobalt there’s, so much Cobalt in these things, which adds to the cost, because, on top of all the other problems with cobalt, it’s, actually kind of expensive in cm stands for lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt oxide.
This is a cathode made of nickel, manganese and cobalt with a graphic anode. The ratios vary with some using a third of each metal. These are called a 1 1 1 ratio. Others use a 5 3 2 combination of nickel, cobalt and manganese respectively.
Overall, these have less cobalt than lco batteries, but it’s still around 30 %. The nickel and the manganese have properties that complement each other well too, and you know, increase the energy and the power density in these batteries.
Some of the best applications for this are ebikes medical devices, EVs and industrial tools. They’ve got a specific energy of 150 to 220 watt hours per kilogram and a cycle life of a thousand to 2,000 charges.
I do other high specific energy and high specific power in CMS are actually really popular. With v’s, plus their chemistry & # 39. S can be adapted in different ways to make it. You know, perform better in those different configurations.
Basically, it makes them more flexible than other batteries, and NCM batteries can be combined with other types of batteries, like lithium, manganese oxide to get kind of the best in both worlds. This is something you actually see in the Nissan Leaf: the Chevy Volt and the BMW.
I3 and last but not least, is nca batteries, lithium, nickel, cobalt, aluminum oxide. These are actually the ones that Tesla uses. The cathode is made of nickel aluminum and cobalt with a graphite, anode and the aluminum.
Add stability of the battery and lowers the cobalt ratio down to 9 %. Tesla says they’ve, gotten theirs down to 3 %. Some applications include medical devices, industrial tools and, of course, Eevee’s.
It’s, got a specific energy of 200 to 260 watt hours per kilogram, possibly up to 300 in a cycle life of 2,000 and higher with their high power energy density. It’s, easy to see why in CA, batteries are becoming more popular with TVs and the prices continuing to plummet on these, as well with the battery price.
Getting down to about a hundred and fifty six dollars per kilowatt hour, Tesla and Panasonic claim they’ve, gotten their sells down below a hundred dollars per kilowatt hour. Now, a few things stand out here.
One is that successive generations of lithium-ion continue to reduce the amount of cobalt in their batteries. Now there are some chemistry’s of batteries that have eliminated cobalt altogether. I’ll talk about one of those here in a minute, but none of them quite have the specific characteristics that are preferred for v’s now.
Another thing worth pointing out is, when you hear say that lco batteries have 50 % cobalt in them. That’s, not 50 % of the overall weight. That is just 50 % of the cobalt material, which itself is only 50 % of the metals.
When combined with the anode and then the rest of the weight is made up by the electrolyte now yet another thing worth pointing out here is: the cobalt is just one of many minerals that all have their own supply chains and are all going to suffer their Own growing pains as the number of V’s continue to rise, minor roles like aluminum, nickel, manganese, as well as copper and rare earth magnets that are used in the motors and, of course, lithium protip.
You know how to tell if somebody doesn’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to v’s. If they say there’s, not enough lithium to go around. You know a lot of people hear the term lithium ion and just assume that there’s a whole lot of lithium involved with it, but that’s, not necessarily the case.
A Tesla, 18 650 cell, for example, only has point six grams of lithium in each cell and that lithium is in the form of lithium salts, which can be extracted from brines and mineral deposits. And some estimates have said that there’s enough lithium.
In our reserves that if we went 100 % electric right now, it could cover every single car for the next 30 years and if we have to there’s, basically a limitless supply of lithium in the ocean. So yeah.
If somebody says there’s, not enough lithium to go around for v’s now you can set them straight and then just ignore everything else and to say, because they don’t know what they’re. Talking about but yeah there’s, a lot of different minerals of various levels of abundance, aluminum and manganese are fairly abundant, whereas copper and rare earth magnets are obviously more rare, and there was a report in 2018 by MIT suggesting that there might be In nickel squeeze on the way, but nickel prices have actually gone down since then, and apparently that report was funded by various fossil fuel automotive companies.
So take that how you will and by the way it’s, not just about the extraction of these minerals, it’s, also the processing of it, which 95 % of it right now takes place in China. So now you get into global trade issues and yeah.
It’s a lot, but this is true of literally everything that’s made in every industry in the entire world. Supply chain management is just mind: melting and a whole industry of its own and supply chains become more difficult when a particular material is only sourced from one location and it becomes extra difficult when that one location has been ravaged by war and poverty and exploitation.
For more than a century, which brings us back to Cobalt, forty-nine percent, literally half of all cobalt reserves in the world are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is as much cobalt in the DRC as in the rest of the world combined and when it comes to actually production of cobalt, 63 percent comes from the DRC.
What is it about the DRC that makes it so challenging? Why is this a worse place for mining than other places in the world? Well, for one thing, the Democratic Republic of Congo as a country is really only twenty years old, but its problems go back much much further in the late 1800s, as the industrial revolution went into full swing, the European powers got a hankering for the sweet, sweet resources Of Africa and the European colonization of Africa began, this was bad pretty much across the board, but the people of the Congo got it the worst, because the Congo Basin was claimed by king leopold, ii of belgium, nona didn’t, say belgium itself.
The king went around parliament and, through some political maneuvering, claimed it as his own, and he called it. The Congo Free State under the guise that he was going to eliminate the slave trade there.
What he did instead was basically enslave. The entire country mandating impossible quotas of rubber and ivory on the tribes people and brutally cutting out their hands that they didn’t meet their quotas.
People who refused to work were murdered for sport, famines followed and by the time the colony was handed over to the Belgian government. In 1906, half of the population had died. It’s, gone down as one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in world history.
The Belgian government continued to run the Congo as a colony until 1960, under a less oppressive, but still exploitative system profiting off the extraction of resources in the region and putting down various rebellions along away.
Eventually, a nationalist movement led by Patrice Lumumba when independence for the Congo in 1960, but that was followed by several years of instability as rival groups, fight for power, but eventually in 1965, Joseph Mobutu took control partly supported by the Belgians and the u.
s. due to his Anti-Communism stance, Mobutu changed the name of the country, does a year and change his own name to Mobutu, said to Seiko and then just kind of stayed for 30 years. If you know the name of Bhutto at all, it’s, probably because of something terrible.
He did. He was a corrupt dictator who over time ran the entire country into the ground. It was only forced out in 1996, when zai ear became embroiled in the neighboring Rwandan civil war, involving the Tutsi and Hutu tribes.
Rwandan and Ugandan tribal armies invaded Zaire sparking the first Congo war. This installed opposition leader, Laurent Kabila, as president who changed the name back to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997, the first Congo war was followed by the second Congo war in 1998, when Kabila felt that Rwandan and Ugandan forces were getting a little too comfy.
In his country, they eventually rebelled on him. The Rwandan joining forces with the Tutsis in the Ugandan siding with the Congolese warlord jean-pierre Bemba, creating a Jenga stack of unstable alliances, involving multiple tribal interests and several other African nations.
This actually did become known as the African World War Camila was assassinated in 2001 and his son Joseph Kabila took over this is when the UN stepped in, sending a peacekeeping force to stop the genocide that, at this point, had killed more than 7 million people and Left central Africa in ruins, it took the largest peacekeeping force in history to calm things down and form a peaceful constitutional government.
The first elections were held in 2006, which were heavily contested and led to violence, but Joseph Kabila came out on top making him the first democratically elected president in 60 years. These elections also solidified the new government and established the name: the Democratic Republic of Congo, unfortunately, Kabila, continued, the dictator streak, stifling opposition and letting tribal warlords basically run the country when he refused to step down at the end of his term.
In 2015, violence erupted again and continued through 2016 to 2017 and 2018. New elections were finally held and the winner was the opposition leader. Felix ASA KT, it’s, been called the first peaceful transition of power in the history of the country.
Obviously there’s hope that the DRC is on the upswing, but still much of the country is run by try warlords who also control some of the mining interests there. Now, while most of the mining operations, there are run with no modern equipment by large mining operations, 15 to 20 percent or what are known as artisanal mines.
These are the ones that the human rights agencies are worried about now. The word artisanal does have a few different meanings. If you’re talking about bread or cheese, that means it was crafted by an artisan and limited quantities using traditional methods.
When you’re talking about mines, it just means limited quantities using traditional methods. So, despite how it sounds it’s, not hipsters mining for beard cream. It’s very poor, very young people, using a little more than their hands and trowels crawling into holes, only a couple of feet wide with no support structures and no ventilation whatsoever.
This is what the lawsuit was about: the 15 to 20 percent of mines that are in these conditions, so just stop buying or from these mines right well, like most things in the DRC, it’s, a bit more of a mess than that.
In theory, the major mining companies aren’t operating these mines are purchasing or from these mines. In fact, the cobalt Institute, whose motto is quote: promoting the sustainable and responsible production and use of cobalt in all forms.
This is 19 member companies on its website. All of these companies have pledged to source their cobalt responsibly, and one of these is Glencore international AG, which I ran across a couple of times in my research for this article.
For one thing, they signed a deal just last week with Samsung to provide enough cobalt for 2 million battery packs over the next 5 years, which is a huge deal, but the other place I saw this name was in an interview with Sidharth Cara who’s a public policy lecturer at Harvard and whose research was the basis for this lawsuit, and in this interview he actually called out Glencore as one of the companies that owned the mines where one of the people in this lawsuit died.
Glencore, of course, responded to this lawsuit by saying that they quote, do not tolerate any form of child forced or compulsory labor, but I guess the course will decide. I also just can’t help but notice how many of those companies are from Europe, including three of them from Belgium.
I mean it might not be fair to say, but it does kind of feel like a continuation of all that stuff. Ok, so if you’re anything like me, this entire topic just makes you feel like you need to take a shower, but – and maybe this has turned you off of v -‘s forever, fair enough, but you’re still Part of the problem, whether you know it or not, right now, 50 % of cobalt is being used in rechargeable batteries, but that’s, not just EVs.
That’s. All devices with rechargeable batteries, probably including whenever you’re watching this on right. Now it’s, also, probably used in the electronic components of what you’re watching right now, including integrated circuits processors and digital storage, and because it alloys so well with many other metals.
It’s, used in all kinds of applications like gas turbines and Rockets, electroplating dental and medical equipment, industrial magnets, and if you’re sticking with gas engines to avoid the cobalt problem there’s, no escape there either because Cobalt is used as a catalyst and the desulphurization process to remove sulfur from gas there’s, pretty much no other way of looking at it.
Cobalt is an integral part of our modern society and until we find other better sources of it, maybe asteroids, which I’ll, be talking about pretty soon. We need to find the most sustainable and humane way of sourcing.
This one option is our old friend, the blockchain, I say old friend it’s still fairly new technology. Blockchain has been considered the solution to a lot of things, specifically digital currency, but with its block transaction structure, it’s.
Actually, really great for supply chains, I mean the word chain is right there. In the name now there have been blockchain based apps to track agriculture supply chains for a few years now, but a new company called mine, spider out of Berlin is doing the same thing for the mining industry.
Cobalt is hardly the only mineral that has problems like this. There have been conflict, minerals and blood diamonds. People have known about for years now. Mine spiders goal is to use a blockchain bait system to track where the source of all of these materials are coming from.
So that the end user can know where it was originally sourced, of course nothing talks more than money, which is why it was a big deal. Last May, when the World Bank announced their climate smart mining facility fund, obviously seeing the writing on the wall.
They’ve invested 50 million dollars to support sustainable mining practices through international oversight, investment in local communities and supply chain, transparency, also investment and other sources of cobalt, so cobalt, doesn’t just exist in the ground.
You would never just stump your toe on a rock of cobalt, it alloys and mixes in with other metals, and that’s. What makes it so valuable and battery production it’s, really more of a byproduct of other mining like copper and nickel, for geological reasons that I was not able to find, although I am very curious, so if anybody knows please do share the comments Below but yeah, 50 % of the world’s.
Cobalt supply resides in the copper mines in the DRC, but that does mean that there’s 50 % more out there. Australia, for example, has the second largest known reserve of cobalt in the world. It’s bound to nickel there.
It’s, less than half of what’s in the Congo, but that’s. Still 1.2 million tonnes of cobalt out there and they’re only mining 5,000 tonnes over the year, but that’s about to change as the need for diversification and the cobalt supply is grown.
A lot of companies have taken interest in Australia, especially from Asia. Last year, LG Chem bought a six percent stake in cobalt, blue and Australia and Shanghai pension bought it 16 percent stake in clean tech for a nickel, cobalt, scandium, mining and processing.
Another promising option is Kazakhstan: a new company was launched, there called Koz cobalt that wants to use the infrastructure already in place for aluminum mining, the source, cobalt and a 700 million dollar nickel processing project in Indonesia is underway, funded by an Asian consortium, including CA, TL.
China’s largest battery maker. This is expected to produce 20,000 tons of cobalt sulfate per year, but, of course, the ultimate source of cobalt and other battery minerals is from a source that doesn & # 39.
T need to be in mind at all older batteries as a number of e V batteries out there on the road continues to rise. There’s, going to be more of a market for what to do with those batteries that they know their lives.
I’ve talked about Second Life solutions for e V batteries before which can kind of extend their usefulness for decades beyond that. But you know, as opposed to gas, which all gets just burned away. The materials and evey batteries can be broken down and used all over again.
I recently attended the fully charged live event in Austin Texas and I got to meet sarcoma cells Raja from American manganese, who have an offshoot called recyclate Co where they have this patented process.
For recycling evey batteries and he was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about their process and the future of battery recycling. For us I mean we’ve developed this process and it’s, a hydrometallurgical process, so it’s more reaching and chemicals.
They’ll, be able to pull out the different metals and filter them out in a pure form. Now, if they want to save on how much they source from you know my from raw materials coming from mines and – and you know making from contracts with suppliers of these batteries, they can go to their own waste.
Pile a process like ours that that has proven in you know when their lab scale and we’ve, had our pilot plant, where we sourced a lot of this material. We’ve, you know created cathode precursor, and this is something that we’ve supplied back to.
You know battery manufacturers for testing that can really help reduce the impact of minor, reduce their reliance on mining as well. Of course, the biggest solution to the cobalt problem is to eliminate cobalt from batteries altogether again, there’s, some promising tech – that’s, going on out there like solid-state batteries, but there are some lifting my own chemistry’s Out there right now, like lithium iron phosphate batteries, they use no Cobalt whatsoever, and on that topic there was another person that I got to talk to at fully charged live Marc Kohler from lithium works.
They developed a modular lithium ion phosphate battery. That has the potential to take over for a lot of cobalt based batteries that are being used right now, so lithium Works was able to acquire valence technology and the industrial cylindrical line of a 1-2-3 both of them started and promoted and produced and made lithium iron Phosphate batteries, lithium iron phosphate battery is another of the cathode materials and the lithium family line, but it doesn’t use any cobalt or nickel in that regard.
If you are looking for a instant solution to cobalt free lithium ion, it already exists. Are Ian’s exist in mass high-volume scale, all over the world with any problem any shortage alternatives start to appear.
You know people’s, go looking for alternatives, so even with the cobalt situation, people working on designing batteries with less cobalt. Yes, in this very moment, there is real concern with the way certain materials are harvested and the conditions in which that happens, but you know one raising the awareness that’s, your first start.
I know that’s, that’s, how you you alert the problem as well as on a design level, how you can design it out of a product for long term yeah. I want to thank Mark and Zarko for taking the time to talk with me about this.
They are, of course, only representing two companies out of hundreds out there that are working on this problem. This is gon na, be a really interesting space to watch in the next 10 years, all right, so this has been a very long article.
I appreciate you guys taking this journey with me, but let’s wrap this up with a few closing thoughts. We recently saw the conclusion of the show the good place, which was fantastic. If you guys saw it and it’s like they somehow made a sitcom out of a moral philosophy class that was absurdist and bizarre.
I loved it, but there was a conceit in the show that I thought about a lot while I was researching this and not to give too much away, but the show takes place in the afterlife and the idea is that when you’re alive, You are judged on a point system, the things that you do, that put a net positive in the world, give you good points and vice versa, and at the end of your life, you tally up all the points.
And if you have enough good points, you get into the good place and if you don’t, you go to the bad place anyway. At one point in the show, they realized that nobody has gotten into the good place in 521 years and they think that it might have been a clerical error or maybe it’s, some kind of sabotage.
But what they eventually figure out is that the world has become so interconnected and global, that every single decision that we make has ripple effects and unintended consequences that go out further than any of us could possibly know, and because of that, all of our actions have These net negatives associated with it that make it basically impossible to get into the good place.
Even if you live the perfect life – and I think they kind of have a point when you buy a vegan lettuce wrap. How do you know that that lettuce, wasn’t picked by an exploited migrant worker when you buy a t-shirt with a socially conscious message on it? How do you know that it wasn’t in a factory by virtual slave labor in Malaysia, and when you buy a cell phone or a tablet, or a laptop or an audio system or a TV? How do you know that it doesn’t have cobalt from the DRC made from artisanal mines using child labor? The fact is, whatever you are watching this on right now, probably has a little bit of that in it.
That’s. Just the nature of the world today, so with any luck, these conditions in the DRC will improve, and these artisinal wells will go away as more cobalt is needed. More major mining operations are gon na spring out there, which will hopefully squeeze out the bad stuff lithium-ion batteries will continue to evolve, to use less and less cobalt.
I would love to say that’s for humanitarian reasons, but it’s. Probably just because cobalt is expensive and the less they have to pay for the cobalt, the more money they can make on their batteries. We’re, likely to see more cobalt coming out of mines in other parts of the world like Australia.
So we’re, not so dependent on the DRC and, at the same time, a more robust recycling infrastructure could create a circular supply chain that will reduce the need for mining and with any luck in the next 10 years or so more advanced batteries Are gon na reduce and eliminate the need for cobalt altogether and then maybe just maybe our our renewable ambitions will finally rid itself of that goblin and the mine.
As I said, only in this article, the lithium and our batteries usually comes in the form of a lithium salt and salts actually have some properties that make them very advantageous for for energy storage, which is talked about in the movie dynamic salt, which you can watch On curiosity stream, this documentary tells a story of salt and how one of the most abundant materials on earth has the power to transform, how we make store and distribute energy it’ll.
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