Just as the Middle East has been a strategic center in global oil politics, the Democratic Republic of Congo has become the epicenter of raw materials needed for electric vehicles, especially cobalt.
The country is the source of more than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, according to the New York Times– a boom that fuels something reminiscent of a gold rush in this African country, as well as lingering concerns about the collateral social and environmental damage.
A recent visit from NYT and his podcast The Daily provided a impression of what this economy looks like– powering everything from large-scale mining operations to “independent” cobalt miners literally shoveling earth from the ground. And yet, many of the most important operations are controlled by China.
Cobalt is a critical material for lithium-ion batteries commonly used in modern electric vehicles and, as the US Department of Energy recently pointed out, it typically accounts for about a quarter of the total battery cost.
Price Trends of Cathode Materials for EV Batteries, 2010-2021 – US DOE
After peaking at $40 per pound in 2018, when it was between $10 and $15 in previous years, cobalt prices have fallen for several years and now they are climbing back almost as high, at around $37 per pound. last week. .
This is the main factor behind why analysts now expect EV battery affordability gains are on hold– probably until 2024 or even later.
Meanwhile, the struggle for cobalt power in that country has “shaken the clean energy revolution,” according to the NYT, as U.S. interests that helped develop and oversee the cobalt market for decades decades, in part with the strategic support of the US government, began selling their stakes to China just at the dawn of the rise of electric vehicles.
Child workers in a wolframite and cassarite mine, Kailo, DRC, by Julien Harneis, 2007 [CC BY-SA 2.0]
The US government let this happen in what has been described by trend-following reporters as a distraction from the obsession with oil resources.
This sale of cobalt control to China happened as recently as the Trump administration, just before widespread political awareness of the situation began with a USGS and Commerce Department review conducted under this administration. The Biden administration has moved to augment raw materials for a US-made electric vehicle supply chain.
Almost a decade ago, when Tesla was planning his Nevada Gigafactory, he found he couldn’t source enough lithium, cobalt, graphite and other key materials from US suppliers.
Introducing Tesla Battery Day Vertical Integration
This is partly the reason why You’re here-etc, Rivian— have turned to lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) battery cells that don’t rely on cobalt or nickel but sacrifice runtime. Ironically, given China’s control of the cobalt market, it is cell chemistry that Chinese automakers have chosen to popularize and mass-produce in their home market, while the West has become increasingly more dependent on resources under the control of Chinese resource providers.
Nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) and nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA) are the two most common chemistries for EV lithium-ion battery cells. Tesla also looked for ways to increase the content of the more abundant manganese in his cells, which could further expand his tight supply of cobalt. And sodium-ion cells – probably more distant – offer the possibility of avoiding lithium, which is another resource in the United States maintained the production of—in the past.
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