Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Hello and welcome to your daily Charge Smart blog! Today, we will be taking a quick look at Cobalt mining.
Let’s get this straight, production of lithium-ion batteries does include cobalt. It is used as the cathode in rechargeable batteries and is currently a critical element. Now while many questions have been posed by the media around the abundance of lithium and the way in which it is mined (most critical articles have included an image of a famous and massive copper mine), lithium is in fact a salt is mined in a relatively low-impact manner and is the 25th most abundant element on Earth. Cobalt in comparison is the 32nd most abundant element, but ~65% of the world's reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC). This is a problem because the DRC is ranked 176th out of 187 countries by the Human Development Index. NZ is 18th. What this means is education levels are low, infant mortality is high, starvation is an issue, and so is child labour. Child labour to mine cobalt, which is used in 'artisanal mines', basically mines which are dug by individuals, with no health and safety, using kids as labour. These represent 10-15% of the mined cobalt in the DRC. Yep, overall it's bad.
Above: Cobalt consumption by industry application
Anyway, while some have pointed fingers at EVs over ethics, no-one is without guilt and in a position to take the moral high ground on this one. This is due to the fact that cobalt is also used in the refinement of crude oil, which is used to make petrol, diesel, kerosene and pretty much any fossil fuel that you can think of. The process is called desulphurisation and cobalt is used to extract sulphur from crude oil (which is a good thing). All crude oils contain up to 2.5% sulphur. Burning this oil directly produces sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide. The biggest danger that these gasses pose to use is in the form of acid rain and we’ve seen the detrimental effects of that! Sulphur in crude oil also clogs up the catalytic converters of modern cars meaning that the exhaust gasses flow freely through the tailpipes rather than being purified in the catalytic converter. A cobalt catalyst is used to extract the sulphur from the crude oil, the sulphur is then converted to hydrogen sulphide which can then be converted into sulphuric acid and used in other industries. Desulphurisation uses a lot of cobalt, in fact, it is the biggest consumer of cobalt in the catalyst sector! But yes, the use of cobalt in rechargeable batteries is the largest use of the element, and this will grow if battery chemistry does not change.
But the industry isn't just moving ahead to consume more cobalt. Leaders like Tesla and others are rapidly moving to design batteries which do not require as much or any cobalt in the future.
If you want to know more about the chemistry behind it, you can take a look below-