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Posts Tagged ‘cobalt

battery technology and the cobalt problem

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The battery in my iPhone 6+ is described as a lithium polymer, or Li-ion polymer battery. I’m trying to find out if it contains cobalt. Why? Because cobalt is a problem.

According to this Techcrunch article, most of the world’s cobalt is currently sourced from Africa, especially the Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries. Child labour is regularly used in the mines there, under pain of beatings and other forms of coercion. The battery industry uses about 42% of global cobalt production, and the rest is used in a range of essential military-industrial applications.

Incidentally, this article from teardown.com blog goes deep inside the iPhone 6+ battery, showing that it uses lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) for the cathode.

I can think of three possible ways out of this problem. 1. Stop sourcing cobalt from the Congo, or anywhere else that has exploitative labour practices. 2. Reform those labour practices, to improve the lives of the workers and provide them with a fairer share of the tech revolution profits. 3. Find an alternative to cobalt for batteries and other applications.

I didn’t say there were easy solutions haha. Anyway, let’s examine them.

An online Fortune article from March this year, which by the way confirms that cobalt is indeed used in iPhone and iPad batteries, reported that Apple has responded to investigative articles by Washington Post and Sky News by no longer buying cobalt from companies that employ child labour. Of course, even if we take Apple at its word – and considering that the Congo provides 60% of the world’s cobalt, and other African sources may have similar problems, how else will Apple be able to source cobalt cheaply? – the problem of Congolese child labour remains. The Washington Post report focused on a Chinese company, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company, which purchases a large percentage of Congolese cobalt. It seems highly unlikely that such a company will be as affected by public or media pressure as Apple. However, there are some positive signs. A report in the Financial Times from a year ago, entitled ‘China moves to quell child labour claims in Congo cobalt mines’, says that China has launched a ‘Responsible Cobalt Initiative’ to improve supply chain governance and transparency. Whether this means applying solution 1 or solution 2 to the problem is unclear, but presumably it’s solution 2, and it really is a serious initiative, put forward by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters, backed by the OECD and involving a number of international tech companies. Of course we’ll have to wait for reports on how this initiative is faring, and on whether these companies are concerned to improve the lives of cobalt miners or simply to ban the under-age ones while still paying very little to the remainder. Continued scrutiny is obviously necessary.

Of course, solution 3 would be of most interest to tech-heads (though presumably the effect on the Congolese economy would be terrible). According to this marketing article, there isn’t too much cobalt available, and the demand for it is increasing sharply. One problem is that cobalt isn’t generally mined on its own as ‘primary cobalt’ but as a byproduct of copper or nickel, and both of these metals are experiencing a worldwide price plunge, with many mines suspending activities. Also the current supply chain for cobalt is being dominated by Chinese companies. This could have a stifling effect especially on the EV revolution. Governments in advanced countries around the world – though not in Australia – are mandating the adoption of electric vehicles and the phasing out of fossil-fuel-based road transport. The batteries for these vehicles all contain cobalt.

In the TechCrunch article mentioned above, journalist Sebastien Gandon examines the Tesla situation. The company has a target of 500,000 vehicles a year by 2018, with cobalt sourced exclusively from North America. On the face of it, this seems unrealistic. Canada and the US together produce about 4% of the world’s cobalt supply, and  acccording to Gandon the maths just doesn’t add up, to say the least. For a start, the mining companies Tesla is looking to rely on are not even operational as yet.

However, there are a few more promising signs. The Tesla model S has been using high energy density nickel-cobalt-aluminium-based (NCA) battery cells, which have a lower cobalt content than the nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) batteries of most other companies. There is also the possibility of adopting lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) chemistry, or lithium-manganese-oxide (LMO), neither of which use cobalt, though their lower energy density is a problem. In any case, battery technology is going through a highly intensive phase at present, as I’ve already reported, and a move away from cobalt has become a distinct possibility. Nickel is currently being looked at, but results so far have been disappointing. There are certainly other options in the offing, and cobalt itself, which unlike oil is completely recyclable, could still be viable with greater focus. It isn’t so much that it is scarce, it’s more that, in the past, it hasn’t been a primary focus, but mining it as a primary source will require substantial upfront costs, and substantial time delays.

So, all in all, it’s a problematic future, at least in the short term, for vehicles and technologies using cobalt-based battery systems. We can only wait and see what comes out of it.

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Written by stewart henderson

October 28, 2017 at 12:55 pm