Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Amnesty International has released a shocking report, about conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the child labourers who mine much of the world’s Cobalt. Cobalt is an essential component of modern high capacity batteries, such as the batteries which power laptops, cell phones and electric cars.
The introduction of the report;
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: “THIS IS WHAT WE DIE FOR”: HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO POWER THE GLOBAL TRADE IN COBALT
This report documents the hazardous conditions in which artisanal miners, including thousands of children, mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It goes on to trace how this cobalt is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices. Using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, and accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment. This report is the first comprehensive account of how cobalt enters the supply chain of many of the world’s leading brands. Company responses sought in the production of this report can be found in document AFR 62/3412/2016 available on this website.
From the report itself;
More than half of the world’s total supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to the government’s own estimates, 20% of the cobalt currently exported from the DRC comes from artisanal miners in the southern part of the country. There are approximately 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal miners in this region, who work alongside much larger industrial operations.
These artisanal miners, referred to as creuseurs in the DRC, mine by hand using the most basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground. Artisanal miners include children as young as seven who scavenge for rocks containing cobalt in the discarded by-products of industrial mines, and who wash and sort the ore before it is sold.
It is widely recognized internationally that the involvement of children in mining constitutes one of the worst forms of child labour, which governments are required to prohibit and eliminate. The nature of the work that researchers found that the children do in artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC is hazardous, and likely to harm children’s health and safety.
The full report can be downloaded from here
Obviously the world is not about to give up on long lasting batteries for cell phones and laptops. But we can do something about electric cars.
Assuming electric car ownership becomes widespread, the amount of cobalt used in car batteries (which typically weigh 100s of kilograms) will utterly dwarf the amount of cobalt used in laptop and mobile batteries. A surge in demand for electric cars would create tremendous financial incentives DRC mining companies to increase production.
Increased production might benefit the child labourers in the long run, by forcing miners to replace child labour with technology, which would also create better paid, high skill jobs for their parents. But we can’t know for sure on what timescale this improvement will occur. In the short term, the easiest way to ramp up Cobalt production would be to expand the workforce, or to work the children harder, potentially pushing already intolerable work conditions beyond human endurance.
There is an alternative technology which would remove the need for batteries in electric cars. For over a decade, scientists have been investigating using powdered aluminium, to store electricity. The powdered metal can be burned, much like conventional fuel, but the burnt oxide waste can recycled back into metal powder. Using powdered metal as fuel would create an electric car experience very similar to gasoline cars – instead of having to wait for the battery to recharge, you could just fill the tank with fresh powdered metal at the gas station.
Clean fuels come in many forms, but burning iron or aluminum seems to be stretching the definition – unless you ask a team of scientists led by McGill University, who see a low-carbon future that runs on metal. The team is studying the combustion characteristics of metal powders to determine whether such powders could provide a cleaner, more viable alternative to fossil fuels than hydrogen, biofuels, or electric batteries.
Metals may seem about as unburnable as it’s possible to be, but when ground into extremely fine powder like flour or icing sugar, it’s a different story. The simile is an apt one because the metal powders are similar to flour or sugar in more than particle size. Almost anything ground so fine will burn or even explode under the right conditions.
Under laboratory conditions, the team found that the flames produced from metal powders were quite similar to those of hydrocarbon fuels and they calculated that the energy and power densities of a metal-burning engine would be comparable to those of a conventional internal combustion engine.
So why aren’t we all driving powdered metal cars? I have a theory.
First of course, there is the abundance of cheap gasoline, which removes any real need for now, to bring alternative fuels to market.
Secondly, government subsidies for current technology battery cars, removes the need to innovate.
As long as Champagne Greens get to drive their government subsidised battery cars, why should they care about the suffering of child labourers in the Congo? After all, they’re already happily ignoring the very real harm done to poor people in the USA, by the regressive energy taxes they champion, which help fund their little green perks.
Finally, a disclaimer – unless I’ve missed a reference, Amnesty avoids mentioning green technology in their report, though they must surely be aware of the connection between cobalt and electric car batteries. Perhaps there are interests and entrenched injustices which are too powerful, even for Amnesty to confront.
Update: The following is a CDC study into the toxicity of Cobalt. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp33.pdf