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The first step in combatting cobalt shortages? Stop throwing it out

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In 2016, a U.S.-owned cobalt and copper mine in the Congo was sold to Chinese mining companies backed by the government in Beijing, in a deal that caused disquiet across the globe. Cobalt has been a key metal used in lithium batteries, which are at the heart of technologies ranging from electric vehicles to energy storage systems that are essential to a renewable energy future. As long as that remains true, whoever controls access to cobalt will have the power to restrict or widen the path towards that future.

Cobalt is an important component in lithium-ion batteries because it maximizes energy density and extends battery life. But production of cobalt, as well as lithium itself, is stretched to its limits. More than 70% of the world’s cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and any nation that produces electronics wants in on that source. But based on operational mines and projected demand, forecasters predict that supply won’t be able to keep up with demand by 2030, or even as early as 2025.

A single lithium-ion EV battery pack contains more than 30 pounds (14 kg) of cobalt, and larger vehicles, like electric buses and shipping trucks, can use much more. Although each battery will likely be put to use for many years (and potentially be used again as stationary energy storage once it is no longer suitable for use in a vehicle), the transition to green transportation and a growing EV industry means that the volume of cobalt needed could outstrip what can actually be provided.  

Cobalt, by nature, is a finite resource: There is only so much that exists in the world. Yet, we’ve been treating it as though there will always be as much as we want. If we want to make sure we have the materials we need to make the leap to a renewable energy future, our approach to materials like cobalt will have to change.

Cobalt isn’t just in the batteries that power our renewable tech – it’s in consumer devices too. Today, when our phones can’t hold a charge, the coffee maker stops working, or the washing machine can’t be repaired in a cost-effective way, there are a few options for what happens next. That device might (1) be thrown out, (2) sit in a basement collecting dust, or (3) be recycled. The first two options pose a real challenge to using cobalt effectively — that metal is out of commission, and more material has to be produced to compensate.

Unfortunately, the first, and worst, option is the most common one today. According to the UN, from 2014 to 2019, e-waste volumes grew by 21% — but in 2019, only 17.4% of that waste was recycled. Part of the reason behind that low number is that e-waste recycling is a difficult thing to do. Small electronics like phones and smart watches that require tiny circuit boards and batteries are gunked up with adhesives. Mixed metals can’t be separated out and reused.

Designing products with their end of life in mind — even having manufacturers be responsible for recycling their own products, as some already do — can make recycling a viable option. By nature, metals can be recycled, melted down and reformed an infinite number of times without losing their characteristics. If products were designed to make metals recovery feasible, and systems were set up to support it, the world could generate a new, renewable source of cobalt for the long run.

While more efficient metals recycling isn’t a cure-all for the cobalt shortages felt around the world, it can make a significant difference. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) puts it: “Recycling would not eliminate the need for continued investment in new supply to meet climate goals, but we estimate that, by 2040, recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10%.” And as processes improve, we can strive towards a truly circular economic model where the need for newly-mined material is little to none.

In the meantime, there are steps we can take to relieve the pressure on cobalt supplies.

Purchasing (and ultimately disposing of) fewer cobalt-rich consumer products frees up the world’s cobalt to be used where it’s more necessary to create a sustainable energy system, like large-scale battery storage or electric vehicles. Using our devices for longer means we don’t need to replace them so quickly – and the fact that many cobalt-reliant electronic devices are deliberately designed to become obsolete after a short period of time also means manufacturers need to pull their weight and start producing products that last.

Design also has a role to play in rationing cobalt. EV manufacturers like GM, for example, are working to limit cobalt use in favor of other materials. In 2020, Tesla announced that it would be transitioning to lithium iron phosphate batteries in its cars to avoid cobalt altogether (although, given that lithium itself is also experiencing shortages, this strategy will also need to work in tandem with efficient e-waste recycling to be effective). Consumers who purchase EVs without (or with less) cobalt can support the ongoing push to electrify our transportation and enable more EVs to be produced quicker.

Cobalt recycling is an important step on the road to a clean, sustainable energy future, as well as a circular economic model that can free the energy industry from international competition, shortages and price fluctuations. As long as we remain dependent on cobalt, our renewable energy future could come to look eerily similar to the historic fossil fuel model: dependent on a few sources of production, and damaging to the environment. Establishing systems that use resources without creating waste can change that model.

Photo: Clint Budd via Flikr, CC BY 2.0