Prompted by a recent FB post by Jonathan Beaver answering a request about the ethics of cobalt mining the BNZT decided to write this blog, incorporating much of Jonathan's detail, in the hope it helps with dismissing FUD around EVs and their manufacture.
The problem with cobalt
Cobalt is used in a lot of EV batteries, although most manufacturers are trying to limit its use significantly. The latest chemistry of lithium ion phosphate (LFP) batteries do not use cobalt at all.
Cobalt is also used in many other products and processes. For instance – the oil refining process, in industrial tooling and in alloys with differing metals; and we should remember that cobalt was being mined long before EV manufacturers included it as an element in their batteries.
Battery manufacture uses just under half of all the cobalt produced, but that encompasses the batteries found in laptops, phones, power tools, toys and even ICE cars and motorcycles. A single EV battery is equivalent to hundreds of laptops and thousands of phones, but those small scale batteries have much, much shorter lifespans.
There is no getting away from the fact that cobalt is essentially a conflict mineral, with some of the worldwide supply being mined in countries with poor working conditions and dreadful to non-existent labour rights, and the term ‘artisanal’ which sounds so wonderful can, of course, effectively hide child/slave labour.
EV battery manufacturing is mostly ‘large format’ cells which necessitate big supply agreements, and therefore come with ethical sourcing requirements and supply chain tracking. It is fair to say that the cheaper end of the market (toys, drones, unbranded cell phones, unbranded power tools) will utilise cobalt from less ethical sources as the price of the ‘good being produced’ needs to be as cheap as possible.
Most Chinese EV manufacturers now use the LFP chemistry for instance, but you could also take issue with the Chinese for their human rights abuses and decide to not buy a Chinese made EV for that reason. But if you then think about our global society, many of the products and services we enjoy in the First World are likely the result of someone getting a raw deal somewhere else – think sweatshop clothing to primary oil and coal mining, so picking on cobalt mining/extraction as the primary reason EVs should not be manufactured, is designed, by powerful lobby groups, to paint EVs in a bad light.
All crude oils contain between 0.1% and 2.5% sulphur, and when combusted the sulphur is converted in sulphur oxides (by the addition of oxygen), which is a pollutant in the air that when combined with rainwater forms sulphuric acid or acid rain. Cobalt plays a vital role in catalysing the removal of sulphur from oil, thus avoiding acid rain. Desulphurisation reactions represents the highest tonnage of cobalt use in the catalyst sector.
Synthesis of polyester precursors
Cobalt catalysts help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the industrial process used to create polyester, by lowering the pressure and temperature settings required to make the polyester precursor. 60% of polyester fibre is used in textiles and 31% in polyester resin to make recyclable plastic bottles.