Guest essay by Eric Worrall
h/t JoNova, MaxD – The United Nations has issued a belated warning that soaring demand for raw materials for the electric vehicle revolution is creating dangerous conditions for children working in toxic mines.
UN highlights urgent need to tackle impact of likely electric car battery production boom
28 June 2020 Climate Change
Electric cars are rapidly becoming more popular amongst consumers, and UNCTAD predicts that some 23 million will be sold over the coming decade: the market for rechargeable car batteries, currently estimated at $7 billion, is forecast to rise to $58 billion by 2024 .
The shift to electric mobility is in line with ongoing efforts to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, and reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change, but a new report from UNCTAD, warns that the raw materials used in electric car batteries, are highly concentrated in a small number of countries, which raises a number of concerns.
Drilling down in DRC, Chile
For example, two-thirds of all cobalt production happens in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), about 20 per cent of cobalt supplied from the DRC comes from artisanal mines, where human rights abuses have been reported, and up to 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions in the mines for meagre income.
…Read more: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/06/1067272
JoNova also provides a link to a 2018 Australian ABC report which drills into the Cobalt issue in more detail.
Children mining cobalt in slave-like conditions as global demand for battery material surges
Former child labourer Yannick from Kolwezi, a city of more than 500,000 people in the south of the DRC, dropped out of school and went into full-time work at the age of seven.
“When I was going to the mines it was to look after my family, because there was a lot of suffering,” Yannick said.
Yannick said the work in the mine involved intense physical labour using only a crowbar, and said conditions underground were generally hot and sticky.
He also described former bosses who insisted their underage employees put in long working days without breaks.
“People died in the mine, and you could suffocate when you are deep in the mine,” he said.
“When it rained, it created a lot of landslides.
“When we were working there and when someone hurts himself, we could not even look at him — the person had to go and get treated on his own, as we were there to work.
“It is not good to let children work at the mines.
…Read more: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-25/cobalt-child-labour-smartphone-batteries-congo/10031330
The UN report also mentions human rights abuses in Chile, with locals in an arid region being deprived of water and forced to relocate, as the water they depend on is being diverted to lithium mining.
What is so important about Cobalt?
Cobalt oxide adds durability to batteries, by supporting chemically stable matrices. This stability prevents the matrix from shattering, when lithium ions migrate in and out of the matrix during violently energetic high power battery discharge and recharge cycles.
There are strenuous efforts to eliminate cobalt from batteries, because it is expensive and because of the human rights abuses associated with Cobalt mining.
For example Tesla has launched a line of cobalt free battery powered vehicles in China. The batteries replace Cobalt oxide with iron phosphate. Anybody who has painted treatment solution primer straight onto rusty steel has already seen the durability of iron phosphate.
If this new iron phosphate battery technology wins broad acceptance, the link might be broken between human rights abuses in Congo, and batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy backup systems.
There are also efforts to eliminate lithium from batteries, replacing lithium with other alkali metals like sodium, which if successful would take the pressure off vulnerable people living near Lithium mines in the Andean highlands.
Having said that, Lithium might still be used for many applications. Lithium is a very lightweight metal, a lot less dense than sodium. Weight matters in portable devices.
And most of the best experimental sodium batteries use, you guessed it, a Cobalt based electrode.
Regardless of the promise of these new technologies, we’re not quite there yet. For now, the majority of the world’s production ready high energy density rechargeable batteries use Lithium and Cobalt.
Demand for Lithium and Cobalt is surging, as governments and industry rush their plans to electrify the world’s vehicle fleets.