The Cobalt Pipeline: Tracing the Path from Deadly Hand-Dug Mines in Congo to Consumers’ Phones and Laptops
by Todd C. Frankel (The Washington Post) … This remote landscape in southern Africa lies at the heart of the world’s mad scramble for cheap cobalt, a mineral essential to the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles made by companies such as Apple, Samsung and major automakers.
The world’s soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures, according to workers, government officials and evidence found by The Washington Post during visits to remote mines. Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects, health officials say.
It moves from small-scale Congolese mines to a single Chinese company — Congo DongFang International Mining, part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt — that for years has supplied some of the world’s largest battery makers. They, in turn, have produced the batteries found inside products such as Apple’s iPhones — a finding that calls into question corporate assertions that they are capable of monitoring their supply chains for human rights abuses or child labor.
Lithium-ion batteries were supposed to be different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past. Lighter and packing more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries, these cobalt-rich batteries are seen as “green.” They are essential to plans for one day moving beyond smog-belching gasoline engines. Already these batteries have defined the world’s tech devices.
Smartphones would not fit in pockets without them. Laptops would not fit on laps. Electric vehicles would be impractical. In many ways, the current Silicon Valley gold rush — from mobile devices to driverless cars — is built on the power of lithium-ion batteries.
But this comes at an exceptional cost.
“It is true, there are children in these mines,” provincial governor Richard Muyej, the highest-ranking government official in Kolwezi, said in an interview. He also acknowledged problems with mining-related deaths and pollution.
But, he said, his government is too poor to tackle these issues alone.
Cobalt is the most expensive raw material inside a lithium-ion battery.
That has long presented a challenge for the big battery suppliers — and their customers, the computer and carmakers. Engineers have tried for years to craft cobalt-free batteries. But the mineral best known as a blue pigment has a unique ability to boost battery performance.
Worldwide, cobalt demand from the battery sector has tripled in the past five years and is projected to at least double again by 2020, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
This increase has mostly been driven by electric vehicles.
While a smartphone battery might contain five to 10 grams of refined cobalt, a single electric-car battery can contain up to 15,000 grams.
But while Congo is a minor supplier of the four designated conflict minerals, the world depends on Congo for cobalt.
Analyst Simon Moores at Benchmark said he thinks this is one reason that cobalt has so far been excluded.
Any crimp in the cobalt supply chain would devastate companies.
Tesla, more than any other automaker, has staked its reputation on “ethically sourcing” every piece of its celebrated vehicles.
“It is something we do take very seriously,” Kurt Kelty, Tesla’s director of battery technology, said in March at a battery conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And we need to take it even more seriously. So we are going to send one of our guys there.”
Six months later, Tesla told The Post it is still working on sending someone to Congo.
Current studies are looking at thyroid conditions and breathing problems. But doctors are most concerned by possible connections to birth defects. One study the university doctors published in 2012 found preliminary evidence of an increased risk of a baby being born with a visible birth defect if the father worked in Congo’s mining industry.
The Lubumbashi doctors also have issued reports on birth defects so rare — one is called Mermaid syndrome — that they are the only cases ever known in Congo. All occurred in children born in heavy mining regions.
For Kayembe, the study that stood out most looked at babies born with holoprosencephaly, a usually fatal condition that causes severe, distinctive facial deformities. It is almost unheard of. Entire medical careers pass without seeing one. But last year, doctors in Lubumbashi recorded three cases in three months.
“This is not normal,” Kayembe said. READ MORE includes VIDEO