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Unlocking the Significance and Controversy Behind Cobalt: The Vital Force Driving Our Daily Lives

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The silvery blue metal is used to make lithium-ion batteries that supply energy to everything from cars to e-cigarettes. It’s also toxic and mined in Congo—where thousands of workers toil in “subhuman” conditions.

Cobalt is essential for powering our modern technology. The metal is commonly used to make lithium-ion batteries, which are found in items such as electric vehicles, computers, smartphones, and even e-cigarettes.

As many countries pivot towards renewable energy, demand for these batteries has never been higher. Global demand for cobalt is expected to grow fourfold by 2030, according to a white paper report from the World Economic Forum, largely thanks to widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

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Yet the cobalt that helps power them and other technology comes with serious humanitarian concerns where it’s mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

These mines have been the subject of investigations and news reports, and they recently gained widespread attention on social media platforms like TikTok. Concerned about the conditions that produce cobalt, TikTok users have pledged to give up their e-cigarettes or vapes, which contain trace amounts of cobalt in their batteries.

In a video from last month that now has more than 1.8 million views, one creator announced that she would quit vaping amid cobalt mining concerns. But to truly limit demand for cobalt, we would have to give up a lot more.

Here’s what you should know about this versatile, yet controversial metal.

What is cobalt and how is it used?

This lustrous, silvery-blue metal helps batteries store a vast amount of energy while also keeping temperatures stable in the freezing cold and scorching hot temperatures, which has made it useful for many aerospace, defense, and medical applications and a key element in many clean energy technologies.

Cobalt also plays a vital role in the performance of lithium-ion batteries. In contrast to common household batteries, lithium-ion batteries can be recharged and reused for years, but they are also more expensive and difficult to recycle.

These batteries do everything from powering handheld devices to storing energy on electrical grids. But this dynamic material is also expensive, toxic, and difficult to extract and process.

More than 70 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from mines in the Congo. There, 15-30 percent is sourced from “artisanal mines” where thousands of freelance miners work in “subhuman” and “degrading” conditions for only a few dollars a day, explained Siddharth Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to NPR.

Kara has been researching modern-day slavery, human trafficking, and child labor for two decades, and his recent book, Cobalt Red, outlines how the so-called cobalt rush has resulted in untold deaths and widespread contamination of the area’s water, soil, and air.

What’s more, copper and uranium are found alongside cobalt in Congolese mines—the latter is a known carcinogen.

To determine just how much of a toll cobalt takes on people who live near mines, researchers at KU Leuven in Belgium and the University of Lubumbashi in the DRC conducted a case study in Kasulo, an urban neighborhood in the city of Kolwezi. The city is in the heart of a Congolese mining deposit. When cobalt ore was first discovered under one of the houses there, the entire neighborhood was quickly swallowed by an artisanal mine, noted the researchers. Houses became interspersed with dozens of mine pits where hundreds of artisanal miners hunted for cobalt, all while residents continued to live nearby, with seemingly no health or safety precautions.

“Children living in the mining district had ten times as much cobalt in their urine as children living elsewhere,” says Benoit Nemery, one of the study’s authors and a pulmonary specialist at KU Leuven. “Their values were much higher than what we’d accept for European factory workers.”

A major health concern for miners and communities living in close proximity to mines is the dust, says Nemery. It contains airborne cobalt and other metals, including uranium—that’s released during the mining process. Some scientists worry this exposure may cause long term health conditions like lung disease.

“The uranium also releases a gas called radon gas, and in the mines, the radon levels are very very high. Radon is a carcinogen that could lead to lung cancer,” says Nemery. “But we don’t know to what extent there is an increased amount of lung cancer in the area because it’s an underserved area medically.”

Are there alternatives to cobalt?

In response to cobalt’s environmental impact and human rights concerns, several high-profile companies, including Apple and Tesla, have pledged to reduce their cobalt use or source it from more responsible producers. Automaker BMW has been sourcing cobalt from Morocco and Australia for its electric vehicles since 2020.

While Tesla has reduced its average cobalt use by more than 60 percent and is now using cobalt-free batteries in its new car models, the EV automaker has also inked a long-term deal with the world’s largest mining company Glencore, for 6,000 tons of DRC-sourced cobalt a year. The deal suggests that Congolese cobalt will continue to be a crucial resource for battery manufacturers, according to the World Economic Forum’s white paper on artisanal cobalt extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Recycling these rechargeable devices could be a major solution to decrease global reliance on mining while also lowering the cost to consumers and reducing the environmental impact of electronic waste.

Redwood Materials, a battery and e-waste recycling company founded by former Tesla chief technology officer JB Straubel specializes in recovering materials like cobalt. The company takes spent lithium-ion batteries, breaks them down, and extracts their metals—including cobalt, lithium, copper, and nickel—to reuse them for new batteries.

By 2025, Redwood Materials estimates they will produce enough recycled materials for one million electric vehicles annually.

Cobalt mining leads to controversy in the U.S.

To expand its domestic supply of rare Earth minerals and reduce its near total reliance on foreign sources of cobalt, the U.S. has ramped up its domestic mining operations. These materials are part of a long term national strategy to transition to renewable energy and zero emission vehicles.

The transportation sector remains the largest source of U.S. carbon emissions, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and transitioning to EVs will play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But these new domestic mines needed to produce the raw materials for EV batteries could also encroach on Indigenous land. Several metals, like cobalt, have been found within 35 miles of Native American reservations. This includes 97 percent of nickel, 89 percent of copper, 79 percent of lithium, and 68 percent of cobalt reserves in the U.S., found MSCI ESG Research.

Lisa Benjamin, associate professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, says that while these metals are crucial for a renewable energy revolution, it’s important to not sacrifice the health and safety of communities living near these deposits.

In order to prevent harming Native communities, Benjamin says the Bureau of Land Management should adopt stricter policies that prohibit mining at sacred sites on reservations, in nearby areas regarded as culturally important, and guarantee tribal leaders a seat at the table.

Benjamin adds, “They should really have a say in whether or not these projects move forward, and they don’t at the moment.”

 

Source: National Geographic

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