Cobalt boom turns life upside down in DR Congo

Posted: March 2, 2018 by oldbrew in Geology

Cobalt mining in DR Congo [image credit: BBC]

If two thirds of the world’s cobalt comes from this one country, then given the projected numbers of electric vehicles – and other electronic devices – needing it in the years ahead, the question must be: is this sustainable? Recent rapid price rises suggest scarcity of supply in relation to demand. China moved in there in a big way about ten years ago.

In early 2014, according to local folklore, a man digging a septic tank or a well in his garden in Kasulo came across rocks with a distinctive grey-green sheen: cobalt.

From then on—rather like the find at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 that sparked the California Gold Rush—life for local people was never quite the same again, says

Demand for cobalt—vital for batteries powering products from iPhones to Tesla electric cars—is soaring, with world prices tripling in four years.

Miners have moved in wherever a fat seam of the metal can be ripped from the Earth’s grasp, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which last year produced two-thirds of the world’s cobalt.

In Kasulo, a district of Kolwezi in the heart of the country’s mining belt, the impact was seismic.

People rushed to get their share of the boom, wielding picks and shovels to extract the precious ore, which was then sold to middlemen at so-called buying houses.

Known by the French word “creuseurs,” amateur prospectors work in dangerous conditions, often in a miasma of toxic dust, Amnesty International said in a report on DR Congo’s cobalt industry in 2016.

In April 2017, the governor of Lualaba province, former interior minister Richard Muyej, banned artisanal extraction in Kasulo, saying he want to “clean up the process of small-scale production.”

At the same time, plans were moving ahead for Kasulo’s cobalt treasure to be exploited by an industrial giant.

In August, a “provincial committee for relocation” was set up. Its task was to oversee the signing of “irrevocable acts of compensation” by around 600 people, whose homes would be knocked down to make way for a Chinese company, Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM).


Today, grievances about the relocation process are many, according to a member of a local watchdog group called Synergie, which has raised questions about the transparency of the CDM deal.

Complaints focus on alleged railroading of compensation offers, under-valued property and promises about being relocated from Kasulo to Samunkida that were poorly kept.

In one such “act” seen by AFP, a home owner was given just 10 days to demolish his house. Compensation for each family ranged “between 1,500 and 10,000 dollars (1,200 to 8,200 euros)”, a Synergie member said.

For the authorities, the fuss is exaggerated.

“The Kasulo relocation was a success,” said Ikos Rukal, a spokesman for the provincial government. “Let those who are not happy come back to the ministry of mines and we will find answers for them,” he said.

Continued here.

  1. E.M.Smith says:

    While DR Congo has a lot, there’s plenty in other countries too

    Australia in particular.

    The whole “Running Out!!!’ scare meme comes from Limits To Growth by Meadows et. al. written at the request of the Club Of Rome (the same folks brining you the Global Warming Myth). Please don’t fall into that trap.

    The amount of reserves of a mineral are dependent on PRICE. As long as DR. Congo with Chinese “help” is the global low cost producer, it will have the most ‘reserves’. As prices rise, other places will become economical to mine (with more expensive labor) and those places will suddenly have more “reserves”.

    Over time, better ways are found to extract the “ultimately recoverable resource” and even that increases.

    Finally, there is resource substitution.

    Lithium batteries DO NOT REQUIRE COBALT. LiCo is but one lithium battery chemistry. IF cobalt ever gets significantly expensive, makers will just shift to a different battery chemistry.

    Become familiar with the many different types of lithium-ion batteries.

    Lithium-ion is named for its active materials; the words are either written in full or shortened by their chemical symbols. A series of letters and numbers strung together can be hard to remember and even harder to pronounce, and battery chemistries are also identified in abbreviated letters.

    For example, lithium cobalt oxide, one of the most common Li-ions, has the chemical symbols LiCoO2 and the abbreviation LCO. For reasons of simplicity, the short form Li-cobalt can also be used for this battery. Cobalt is the main active material that gives this battery character. Other Li-ion chemistries are given similar short-form names. This section lists six of the most common Li-ions. All readings are average estimates at time of writing.

    Note that “six of the most common”. There are more lesser used too. I’m cutting out the text description, just listing the names. Hit the link for details.

    Lithium Cobalt Oxide(LiCoO2)
    Lithium Manganese Oxide (LiMn2O4
    Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (LiNiMnCoO2 or NMC)
    Lithium Iron Phosphate(LiFePO4)
    Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide (LiNiCoAlO2)
    Lithium Titanate (Li4Ti5O12)

    Note that NCO (the usual cobalt one) has a specific energy of 200 as does NMC that also uses some cobalt. BUT the NCA one is 250. (Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide). Simply put, using more nickel and aluminum and less cobalt gives a better battery.

    But even LMO (Lithium Manganese Oxide) is pretty good at 140 specific energy. Worst case is your cell phone is a little bit bigger and your car battery pack larger. Not the end of the world.

    Figure 15 compares the specific energy of lead-, nickel- and lithium-based systems. While Li-aluminum (NCA) is the clear winner by storing more capacity than other systems, this only applies to specific energy. In terms of specific power and thermal stability, Li-manganese (LMO) and Li-phosphate (LFP) are superior. Li-titanate (LTO) may have low capacity but this chemistry outlives most other batteries in terms of life span and also has the best cold temperature performance. Moving towards the electric powertrain, safety and cycle life will gain dominance over capacity. (LCO stands for Li-cobalt, the original Li-ion.)

    The thought being that the Lithium Titanate cell, being superior in lifespan and better low temperature characteristics will make a better car battery…

    Then there’s the Sodium-Ion and Potassium-Ion batteries waiting in the wings, if ever needed or some researcher makes them “special” in some performance characteristic. They already exist, but at an early stage of R&D, so expect more to come. Panic over lithium “scarcity” is also unwarranted.

    Again, only listing the names. Tech details in the link.

    Lithium-air (Li-air)
    Lithium-metal (Li-metal)
    Solid-state Lithium
    Lithium-sulfur (Li-S)
    Sodium-ion (Na-ion)

    Sodium-ion represents a possible lower-cost alternative to Li-ion as sodium is inexpensive and readily available. Put aside in the late 1980s in favor of lithium, Na-ion has the advantage that it can be completely discharged without encountering stresses that are common with other battery systems. The battery can also be shipped without having to adhere to Dangerous Goods Regulations. Some cells have 3.6V, and the specific energy is about 90Wh/kg with a cost per kWh that is similar to the lead acid battery. Further development will be needed to improve the cycle count and solve the large volumetric expansion when the battery is fully charged.

    Cobalt in DR Congo is a Big Deal for the locals largely because it is cheap when they mine it. On the global scale, it really isn’t much of an issue. IF it ever becomes problematic, engineers will just design in some other battery and move on.

  2. oldbrew says:

    No cobalt, no Tesla?
    Posted Jan 1, 2017

    The battery industry currently uses 42 percent of global cobalt production, a critical metal for Lithium-ion cells. The remaining 58 percent is used in diverse industrial and military applications (super alloys, catalysts, magnets, pigments…) that rely exclusively on the material.
    . . .
    New primary cobalt mines may come online should cobalt prices soar; however, exploration, licensing and development take time and require billions of dollars of investments. In addition, 60 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves and resources originate in the DRC, which is riddled with child labor and exploitation.
    . . .
    So far attempts for substituting cobalt resulted in a loss in product performance. But nothing is set in stone.

  3. oldbrew says:

    CBS NEWS March 5, 2018, 7:40 AM
    CBS News finds children mining cobalt for batteries in the Congo

    A CBS News investigation has found child labor being used in the dangerous mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mineral cobalt is used in virtually all batteries in common devices, including cell phones, laptops and even electric vehicles.
    . . .
    The latest research by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates 40,000 children are working in DRC mines, but the Good Shepherd Foundation, which works on the ground in the country, believe the number is higher.

    More than half of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, and 20 percent of that is mined by hand, according to Darton Commodities Ltd., a London-based research company that specializes in cobalt.

  4. oldbrew says:

    ‘Ultimately there will be no lithium ion battery industry without DRC cobalt.’