With oil supplies declining and concerns over climate change rising, the race to embrace electric cars has been anything but static.
Everyone from rideshare companies to entire countries have hailed the technology as the way of the future, and not without reason: Battery-powered engines have been linked to benefits ranging from increased air quality to lower death rates.
Perhaps reenergized by the recent attention, the traditionally slow market for electric vehicles has lately seen sales numbers spark, with just under 200,000 units sold in the U.S. last year—a new record and an increase from 2016’s total by more than 20%. The trend continued into 2018, with January marking the 28th consecutive month of year-over-year growth for plug-in car sales.
But despite the anticipation and recent celebration of the battery-powered machines, there’s a giant, metal elephant in the room that seems determined to ruin the party.
Can’t Live Without It
Whether through a lack of imagination or a lack of viable options, engineers have struggled to produce an electric or hybrid vehicle that doesn’t require the element cobalt.
The naturally occurring metal is an essential ingredient in the lithium ion batteries that power electric car motors—the same type of rechargeable cells that have been used in mobile phones and laptops for years.
But prolonged demand for a high-tech world—and the ancient elements needed to power it—has sent metal prices off the charts.
Cobalt fetched up to $60,000 per metric ton by fall of last year after seeing a price increase of 150% in 2017 alone, largely attributed to the growing call for electric vehicles. And thanks to a global focus on lowering harmful emissions—and several impending nationwide bans on all fossil-fuel engines—that number is only poised to climb, as only a finite supply of the metal exists.
Experts have predicted no less than a 14,900% increase in demand for cobalt by 2030, with markets anticipated to grow from 2,000 tons sold per day to more than 300,000.
From a strictly business sense, the situation is dire, but the ongoing imbalance has a much deeper impact than an arbitrary setting of the commodity’s price.
Before cobalt can be used to charge environmentally friendly car engines, it must first be torn out of the earth—a painful and dirty process.
Mining operations have always raised environmental red flags, and cobalt mining has some especially insidious implications.
The element itself isn’t so uncommon to find in the earth’s crust, but it resides there in low concentration, so in order to extract enough to be useful, companies must uncover vast areas of land, often collecting cobalt as a byproduct of other mining jobs. In 2007, nearly half of the world’s cobalt supply came from nickel mines, while 37% was collected at sites for mining copper.
There are areas rich enough with the element to extract it directly, but they’re rare. Found primarily in one of Africa’s most unstable countries, cobalt-rich regions are increasingly home to mines entering the “closure” phase, during which operations begin to wind down after a resource is tapped.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which is home to nearly 60% of the earth’s cobalt supply, the practice of mining the metal has unleashed a literal river of toxins, with the acidic pollution stemming from copper and cobalt operations deemed responsible for poisoning the Katapula tributary of the Congo River—and eventually the entire city of Lubumbashi.
Still, demand is expected to press on, and those desperate or desirous enough to jump at the lucrative opportunity will stop at nothing to ensure the money keeps flowing.
A Moral Conundrum
Residing almost entirely in a country with some of the world’s richest mineral deposits and one of its poorest populations, the cobalt industry is rife with ethical strife.
More than 40,000 children participate in the deadly work of mining cobalt, according to a Washington Post report.
It’s estimated over 100,000 workers in DRC's mines use hand tools for the backbreaking work of digging through hundreds of feet of earth daily. Death and injuries on the job are common, as is corruption and negligence within the mining operation.
And children aren’t spared the horrors of laboring in the underground tunnels, with more than 40,000 boys and girls estimated to participate in the deadly work, according to an investigative report by the Washington Post.
Following the supply chain to ensure cobalt is mined in fair conditions—and not by children—is difficult and sometimes impossible, the Post reported, with many operations posting guards at their gates or otherwise blocking access to their activity. And while conflict-free cobalt is available, 98% of it stems from copper and nickel mining, which offer their own spotty labor and environmental records.
The outrageous popularity of cobalt has also spawned a number of guerilla mining operations across the world, and especially in the DRC, where workers forage for the element and turn in any stones for a pittance—the equivalent of $2 or $3 on a good day, according to the Post report. The stones are mostly purchased by one of several massive Chinese companies, which then sell the element in bulk to top players in the tech and automotive worlds.
Still, the only thing that seems surer than the ongoing ethical challenges around extracting the element is a sustained demand for it—especially if the push for electric vehicles continues gaining momentum.
When it comes to creating the world’s alternative fuel, it seems we’ve been left with little alternative.