Electric car’s future lies in Congo’s cobalt mines
Millions of electric cars are to be built in the next few years, up to 280 million of them, according to analysts. And they all need cobalt so far for their batteries, not some milligrams like in smartphones, but up to 15 kg in some cases. And today almost all of it comes from one place on earth: the cobalt mines in Congo.
Cobalt, that was considered a by-product of copper and nickel mines for a long time, appears to be a very good conductor to be used in lithium-ion batteries.
Prices are soaring
With all electronic devices using it, but also the massive production of electric cars in the future, prices for cobalt are soaring. Maybe even more than the lithium, another key component, but that is found more commonly around the world.
In 2017 prices for cobalt have doubled, but according to news agency Bloomberg cobalt is into a ‘super-cycle’ and hasn’t reached its peak price yet. “Demand will rise as more companies are announcing to start building battery factories like Tesla, more than 26 in total worldwide”, Andrew Miller, market researcher at Benchmark Minerals says.
123.000 metric tons
In the meantime supply is stalling with production in the Congolese mines being 123.000 metric tons, 2% less than in 2016 calculated the American research bureau USGS.
The winners are easily identified: the mining companies working in Congo like Swiss Glencore. Two years ago in financial difficulties due to a high burden of debt, it appears to be completely healthy again.
Umicore importing cobalt
As is Brazilian mining giant Vale and to some extend Belgium based Umicore that imports cobalt form Congo, refining it in its own installations to sell it to battery manufacturers. But Umicore strongly believes in recycling cobalt from used batteries in the future. They say batteries can be recycled for 90%.
The losers are easily found too: the Congolese people and even children working in horrific conditions in the mines. In a 2017 report Amnesty International depicts the working conditions in these mines like in Katanga, in the southern part of Congo, where cobalt is often mined by hand.
40.000 children working in mines
Thousands of children are working in these mines too. Unicef estimates some 40.000 children are working in the mines of Katanga. Often without a mouth mask that should protect against poisoned fumes. There is already a form of pneumonia named after cobalt.
Some companies claim they took measures not to use ‘dirty cobalt’ of this origin. Like Apple for its electronics. Umicore neither, assures spokeswoman Marjolein Scheers.
President Kabilla has plans to impose more stringent regulations on the mining industry, even introduce a levy on cobalt to prevent that all profits flow out to foreign countries. “It’s to be seen whether that would differ”, Africa expert Koen Vlassenroot from the Ghent University says. “The Congolese elite is strongly interwoven with the mining industry and corruption flourishes.”