Who pays to keep your batteries charged?: Trade-Offs with Mridula Ramesh - Hindustan Times

Who pays to keep your batteries charged?: This month’s Trade-Offs with Mridula Ramesh

Mar 04, 2024 12:49 PM IST

Cobalt is central to the making of rechargeable batteries. As demand rises, mines are expanding. They are hazardous, toxic. Is there a better way?

The Germans called them kobold – small goblins that lived deep within the mines near Saxony. The foul gases that choked miners, and the falling rocks before a tunnel caved in, were the kobolds’ work. The kobold deceived them with a silvery metallic ore with a faint bluish tinge, which gave off poisonous gases when heated and left behind a worthless “tutty”.

Miners move bags of cobalt at a mining site in Congo. In 2023, this country supplied three-quarters of the world’s cobalt, with children as young as six working in such mines. (Getty Images)
Miners move bags of cobalt at a mining site in Congo. In 2023, this country supplied three-quarters of the world’s cobalt, with children as young as six working in such mines. (Getty Images)

That is why, when the Swedish chemist Georg Brandt finally managed to isolate the shiny, tricky metal within the ore, he named it cobalt.

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The metal was valued as a dye, for millennia. It entered industrial supply chains at scale when Sony introduced the first commercial rechargeable battery in 1991 (the team that discovered lithium-ion chemistry later won the Nobel Prize). Chemistry is important to our story, so let’s wade into battery chemistry a bit. Think of a rechargeable battery as a liquid-filled box with two pillars that are connected outside the box by an electric wire. When the battery is charging, electrons flow from one pillar called the cathode to the other pillar (the anode) via the electric wire. Losing the electrons leaves the cathode positively charged, and to balance the charges, the cathode releases positive ions within the box, which are pulled toward the negatively charged pillar. This goes on until the pillars can’t give out more electrons or take in more ions. This fully charged battery can now power a phone or a car, reversing the electrochemical reaction that we just explored.

What do we want in a rechargeable battery? We want it to charge and discharge as many times as possible before it stops working. We want the charge to last a long time. We don’t want it to catch fire. We want it to be cheap. And, if at all possible, we’d like it to be somewhat sustainable. Cobalt lies at the heart of the battery and at the centre of those trade-offs. Using pure lithium or a lithium-nickel oxide is problematic – the battery catches fire or has a short life. But cobalt’s unique chemistry stabilises the battery like a good friend, even as it enhances the battery’s energy density. Thus, an NMC battery chemistry, with the cathode made from nickel, manganese (yet another stabiliser) and cobalt, offers the best trade-off (currently) between cost, range, safety, longevity and fast charging.

The remarkable popularity of the rechargeable battery is reflected in the trade figures of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This country’s exports in 1995 were worth just $1.56 billion – mainly gemstones sent to Belgium, its former colonial ruler. A decade later, Tesla released its Roadster, making electric mobility aspirational -- for the Roadster was no tofu salad, it was caviar. Caviar powered by a nickel-cobalt battery. But while phones and handycams contained only a few gm of cobalt each, a single electric vehicle needed kgs of the stuff. Then, Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone in 2007, powered by a lithium-ion battery containing, you guessed it, cobalt.

By then, Congo’s leading export was metallic ores, with China vying with Belgium for the tag of top export destination. Then came the Great Recession and the European financial crisis, which kept the West distracted even as China cornered the supply of critical minerals. By 2012, Congolese exports (mostly metals and metallic ores destined for China) had tripled. In the background, the engineers made batteries cheaper and more powerful. Between 1991 and 2018, one study found that prices of lithium-ion batteries, adjusted for capacity, dropped by 97% even as their energy density more than tripled. Batteries were now powerful enough and cheap enough to power a mass-market electric car.

According to the energy research organisation BloombergNEF, sales of internal-combustion cars peaked in 2017. The current age of electric cars relies on cobalt. Between 2016 and 2023, the demand for cobalt grew 11% every year, with Congo supplying three-quarters of the world’s cobalt in 2023. Demand has sped up in the last two years. To meet it, the mines expanded, clearing out surrounding villages and forests to do so. Two people who had visited these cobalt mines told me that they are hell on Earth. They’re enormous mud pits pockmarked and pierced with lethal depressions and tunnels, with thousands of people crammed into them, chipping away for cobalt ore. Children, some as young as six, are almost always present, they told me, often washing the mud away from the ore. It is backbreaking work that can be fatal. As mines go deeper, tunnels can and do collapse, burying those within. All this for about $1 a day for women and children and $2 to $3 for men, in most mines.

This process of manual extraction of ore is called artisanal mining, a deceptive name designed to whitewash the horrors of the process. When people are forced to do hazardous, punishing work for long hours with little protection, the more apt label for it, as others have pointed out, is “slave labour”. (If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…)

Anjan Sundaram, an award-winning journalist who spent time living and reporting in Congo, told me he had seen mass graves of children who died because they crumpled beneath the weight of the sacks they carried. “Why do they do it?” I asked. “What else is there? They have no other viable choice. Every time there is a technological revolution in the world, Congo seems to suffer. In the first automobile revolution, for rubber; for silver and nickel in the industrial revolution; uranium during World War 2; copper and tin for circuits in the electronic revolution; and now, with phones and cars, Congo has cobalt. They don’t believe it can change, they believe the resource is a curse, and so, they live for the day.”

Siddharth Kara, anti-slavery economist and author of the bestselling Cobalt Red, visited cobalt mines across Congo and writes in his book that even the largest industrial mines that are supposed to be free of child labour appear to have artisanal mining on the fringes. One such mine near an industrial mining site sends out, Kara estimated, 180,000 tonnes of copper-cobalt ore annually. The mine appeared, when I searched for it on Google Earth, as a rapidly expanding, gouged-out area in an ugly grey that contrasted starkly with its green surroundings. Kara writes that he saw “more than fifteen thousand men and teenage boys” crammed into an “enormous digging pit”, where they “were hammering, shovelling, and shouting inside the crater, with scarcely room to move or breathe. None of the workers wore an inch of protective gear”, even as “dust and grit rose from the earth like smoke from a wildfire”.

And yet by the time cobalt has moved from the ground to sack to broker to godown to processor to commodity giant to cell to battery to phone, the horror might as well never have existed. The sleek phone and shining car seem the picture of sustainability.

But then, in 2019, a human rights group, IRAadvocates, sued a group of tech giants on behalf of parents and children who had been maimed or killed in cobalt mines that were allegedly part of the tech supply chain. In 2021, the lawsuit was dismissed, citing a lack of traceability. As an aside, that year, Apple, one of the defendants in the trial, made a profit more than four times the value of Congo’s entire exports.

The stench of exploitation is hard to escape once one learns of its role in battery manufacturing. It’s in your phone and in mine. Powering the laptop on which I type these words: “I am benefitting from the forced labour of defenceless humans”. It leaves me feeling dirty inside.

Cobalt freed us from the shackles of electric wiring, gasoline stations and telephone lines, allowing us to scroll through cat videos in the middle of the forest, even as it shackled the Congolese to the ever-growing deadly mines. And this makes the sustainability of phones and EVs a hollow promise.

If this is all too touchy-feely for you, consider another risk. Virtually all the cobalt from Congo is processed in China, and as we wade deeper into the sustainable world of electric mobility, we are, in a sense, replacing Saudi Arabia with China. While the forced labour was considered defensible, being held by their short-and-curlys by China was a less palatable reality. Apple says it began recycling cobalt in 2018, and commits to making all its Apple-designed batteries from recycled cobalt by 2025. Tesla is moving its entry and mid-range cars to non-cobalt battery chemistry. For India, recycling cobalt (and other critical minerals) from batteries is a great way to both enhance the sustainability of electronics and electric mobility and maintain our strategic autonomy. But how to speed up this process?

In textiles, pressure from global brands is helping clean up labour practises in the supply chain. Brands act because of pressure from the public. Could this happen in cobalt too? Maybe every phone and electric vehicle should have a sticker, like the lurid ones about cancer seen on cigarette packets. On the batteries, the sticker could show children digging for cobalt in the mud. That would be one way to dial up the pressure and force the trade-off between cost and truly sustainable cobalt and thus electric vehicles.

(Mridula Ramesh is a climate-tech investor and author of The Climate Solution and Watershed)

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