Cobalt is an essential metal in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries, making it a critical component in the electronic devices and electric vehicle (EV) industry. However, the growing demand for cobalt has unleashed a series of crises ranging from environmental problems to human rights violations. This article explores the multiple dimensions of the cobalt crisis and its global implications.

Importance of Cobalt

Cobalt is essential for the production of lithium-ion batteries, which are used in mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles. Its ability to improve the energy density and stability of batteries makes it irreplaceable in current technology.

Properties and Uses of Cobalt

Cobalt has unique chemical and physical properties that make it valuable in several applications. In addition to its use in batteries, cobalt is used in the manufacture of wear- and corrosion-resistant alloys, magnets, catalysts for oil refining and in the health industry for radiotherapy treatments and as a component in medical devices.< /p>

Increasing Demand

The transition towards a greener economy, with greater use of electric vehicles and renewable energy, has significantly increased the demand for cobalt. According to estimates, global demand for cobalt could triple over the next two decades, driven by the expansion of clean energy infrastructure and the growing adoption of electronic devices.

Origin and Extraction

70% of the world's cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country rich in resources but marked by political and economic instability. Cobalt mining in the DRC has been criticized for deplorable working conditions, child labor and artisanal mining without adequate regulations.

Mining Process

Cobalt is primarily extracted as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining. There are two main extraction methods: large-scale industrial mining and artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Industrial mining uses advanced technology and heavy equipment, while ASM is carried out with hand tools and rudimentary methods.

Artisanal and Small Scale Mining (ASM)

ASGM represents a significant part of cobalt production in the DRC. Despite its economic contribution, ASM is plagued with problems. Artisanal miners often work in dangerous conditions, without adequate protective equipment and with little or no supervision. Working conditions are precarious, with long working hours and low salaries. Additionally, child labor is common, with children exposed to serious physical and chemical risks.

Environmental Impacts

Cobalt mining has serious environmental repercussions. Deforestation, water pollution and the emission of toxic dust are just some of the problems associated with this activity. These practices not only affect local biodiversity, but also put the health of nearby communities at risk.

Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss

The expansion of mining activities often involves the destruction of large areas of tropical forest, leading to the loss of biodiversity and alteration of local ecosystems. Deforestation also contributes to climate change by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide stored in vegetation.

Water Pollution

The cobalt extraction process generates toxic waste that can contaminate nearby water sources. Chemical spills and heavy metal leaching into rivers and streams affect water quality, endangering the health of communities that depend on these sources for drinking, fishing and farming.

Toxic Dust and Air Pollution

Cobalt mining releases dust and toxic particles into the air, which can cause respiratory illnesses and other health problems in local populations. Prolonged exposure to these pollutants can have serious effects, including chronic lung disease and cancer.

Human Rights and Working Conditions

Child labor and unsafe conditions in DRC cobalt mines have been widely documented. Miners often work without proper protective equipment, exposing themselves to serious risks such as tunnel collapses and respiratory illnesses. Labor exploitation and the lack of fair wages further aggravate the humanitarian crisis in the region.

Child Labor

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that tens of thousands of children work in cobalt mines in the DRC. These children face extremely dangerous conditions, with a high risk of injury and illness. Furthermore, child labor interferes with their education and development, perpetuating the cycle of poverty in the region.

Health and Safety

Working conditions in cobalt mines are extremely dangerous. Miners often work without the necessary protective equipment, increasing the risk of accidents and illness. Tunnel collapses and cave-ins are common, causing serious injuries and deaths. Exposure to toxic chemicals also poses significant long-term health risks.

Labor Exploitation

Cobalt miners in the DRC often receive very low wages and work in exploitative conditions. The lack of labor regulations and weak government institutions allow mining companies and middlemen to abuse workers. The absence of formal contracts and the instability of employment aggravate the vulnerability of miners.

Economy and Geopolitics

The world's dependence on Congolese cobalt has generated geopolitical tensions. China controls much of the cobalt supply chain, from mining to refining, giving it significant influence over the global market. This concentration of power poses risks to supply stability and can lead to price fluctuations that impact the global technology and automotive industry.

Chinese Dominance in the Supply Chain

China has invested significantly in cobalt mining in the DRC and controls many of the refineries that process cobalt. This dominant position in the supply chain allows China to influence prices and access to cobalt, creating strategic dependencies that can be used as tools of geopolitical power.

Market Fluctuations

The concentration of cobalt production in a politically unstable region and dependence on China in the global supply chain can lead to significant fluctuations in cobalt prices. These fluctuations may affect industries that depend on cobalt, including the manufacturing of electric vehicles and electronic devices, creating uncertainty in the market.

Impact on the Global Economy

The cobalt crisis has global economic implications. Increases in cobalt prices can increase the production costs of batteries and, therefore, of final products such as mobile phones and electric vehicles. This can slow the adoption of clean technologies and hamper efforts to reduce carbon emissions globally.

Innovation and Alternatives

To mitigate the cobalt crisis, several alternatives are being explored. Research into cobalt-free batteries, such as lithium iron phosphate (LFP) and solid-state batteries, is underway. Additionally, improved battery recycling could reduce demand for virgin cobalt, promoting a more sustainable circular economy.

Cobalt-Free Batteries

Researchers are developing batteries that use less cobalt or eliminate it completely. Lithium iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries and solid-state batteries are promising in this regard. Although these technologies are still in the development and testing phases, they could offer viable solutions in the near future.

Battery Recycling

Efficient recycling of used batteries can recover cobalt and other valuable metals, reducing the need for additional mining. Improving recycling technologies and establishing adequate infrastructure for the collection and processing of used batteries are crucial steps towards a circular economy that minimizes the environmental and social impact of cobalt production.

Innovations in Processing

In addition to alternatives in battery design, more sustainable methods for processing cobalt are being developed. These include techniques that minimize the use of toxic chemicals and reduce environmental pollution, as well as methods that improve the energy efficiency of the refining process.