Cobalt: What It Is, What It's Used For, and What Lies Ahead for the Metal That Brings Your Phone to Life

Cobalt: What It Is, What It's Used For, and What Lies Ahead for the Metal That Brings Your Phone to Life

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Coltan and cobalt have a lot in common. Both are relatively scarce, essential in the manufacturing of many of the electronic devices we use every day, and extracted under highly questionable conditions. However, despite both industries being characterized by the same opacity and instability, cobalt used to attract less media attention than coltan. But not anymore.

The present, and future, not only of the consumer electronics market but also of electric cars, are intimately tied to the availability of cobalt. In this context, it’s easy to see why the companies that compete in these markets have their eyes on the reserves of this highly coveted metal. This is the story of one of the raw materials that contributes to making our lives what they are today.

What Is Cobalt? What It’s Used For?

Cobalt is a ferromagnetic metal, which means that it has magnetic properties similar to those of iron. In fact, if you look at the periodic table, you’ll see that it’s placed between iron and nickel, indicating that their atomic structures and chemical properties are similar. An atom of cobalt has just one more proton in its nucleus, and one more electron orbiting around it, than iron.

But the link between these elements goes beyond their atomic structure and chemical properties. Cobalt is often found alongside nickel, although it’s less abundant (it's estimated that there is 0.02% nickel in the Earth’s crust, compared to 0.001% cobalt). What’s really interesting is that both cobalt and the alloys it produces are highly resistant to wear and corrosion, even at very high temperatures.


In addition, its hardness and tensile strength are very similar to those of iron and nickel, making it ideal for alloys used in industrial machinery. Interestingly, cobalt is also part of cobalamin, which you probably know as vitamin B12. It's essential, in small amounts, to all animals, including humans.

But its uses don’t end there. One of its isotopes, cobalt-60–which has the same number of protons and electrons as cobalt (27), but also one more neutron in the nucleus–is a radioactive metal used in radiotherapy to treat some forms of cancer. The problem is that its half-life is just over five years, and after that period it remains highly radioactive. For this reason, its use in medical applications is declining in the West.

the battery inside a smartphone

And there’s more. Cobalt has other uses we haven’t even explored yet. However, out of all of them, the one that inspired this article is the part it plays in manufacturing the electrodes of the batteries that power many of the devices we use in our everyday lives, like our smartphones, tablets, laptops and more.

Cobalt has even become essential in making batteries for electric cars, which is why the consumer electronics and automotive industries are now fiercely competing to secure its production for the future.

Cobalt and Electric Batteries

The importance of lithium in the manufacturing of batteries for our electronic devices is quite evident. A quick look to their specs will reveal the term Li-ion, which indicates that lithium ions are involved in the composition of the battery.

An ion is simply an atom or molecule that is not electrically neutral. In other words, it has an electric charge. If this charge is positive the ion is called a cation, and if it’s negative, it’s called an anion. Now, back to our battery. We all know its purpose is to store electrical energy and release it in order to power the electronic components of our devices. To do this, batteries have three crucial elements: a cathode, an anode, and an electrolyte.

a smartphone being charged

Without going into too much detail, it would be useful to understand some concepts to see the role that cobalt plays in today’s lithium-ion batteries. The cathode and the anode are the battery’s electrodes, which means that they're electrical conductors in contact with a non-metallic element of a circuit. In batteries, this non-metallic element is the electrolyte, which is a substance that contains ions and acts as an electrical conductor.

The release of electrical energy occurs due to a phenomenon known as a redox reaction (from reduction-oxidation)­, a chemical process where a set of electrons travels from one element to another, altering its oxidation state. In our batteries, the cathode undergoes the redox reaction, receiving electrons and reducing its oxidation. Meanwhile, the anode does the opposite, losing electrons and increasing its oxidation.

This process is possible because the electrolyte contains a lithium salt that provides the necessary ions for the electrochemical reaction, with the resulting transportation of electrons. Interestingly, the cathode and anode can return to their initial state during the battery’s charging process, allowing hundreds of charge and discharge cycles before its energy storage capacity drastically drops.

AA batteries

The goal of a battery is to convert its chemical energy into electrical energy, and this's possible because of the process we just described. Once the battery is connected to a circuit, or placed in a device with a certain energy demand, the electrodes communicate through this circuit, generating an electrical current that flows from the anode to the cathode, powering it. Essentially, this is how a standard battery works.

Now we know what role lithium plays in our batteries. Next, let’s briefly review what these batteries offer compared to the nickel-cadmium or nickel-metal hydride batteries that we used before lithium-ion ones became the norm. On one hand, lithium-ion batteries charge faster, have a higher energy density (which translates into greater autonomy), are less sensitive to the “memory effect,” and are lighter. Clearly, their advantages are significant.

But lithium-ion batteries are far from perfect. Under certain conditions, they can overheat to the point of exploding (let’s not forget what happened a few years ago with Samsung’s controversial Galaxy Note 7), they have a lower number of charge and discharge cycles compared to nickel-cadmium batteries (similar to that of nickel-metal hydride batteries), their performance can drop by up to 25% in very low temperatures, and they are expensive to make–though costs have decreased in recent years due to mass production.

anode catode

So now we have a clear understanding of how batteries work and the role of lithium in them. But where does cobalt come in? Cobalt is used to significantly enhance lithium’s performance in batteries, extending the autonomy of our devices, which is what everyone wants.

This use of cobalt started to be exploited on a massive scale a few years ago. Before that, this metal used to be acquired mainly from whoever was in charge of its extraction–which, as we will see later, aren’t always companies–by firms that manufacture alloys for industrial applications.

Now, let’s analyze which part of the battery uses cobalt. Based on what we know, it won’t be hard to pinpoint: It’s the positive electrode. Cobalt oxide is used to build a matrix or substrate on which small patches of lithium oxide are deposited. This allows for nearly three times the storage capacity, compared to lithium-ion batteries that don’t use cobalt. In addition, their capacity reduces by only 1.8% after about 130 charge cycles, which is quite good.

How Much Cobalt Is There? Where Is It?

Now we’ve covered the harder, technical part; what comes next is easier to grasp. Let’s start with some figures. According to the Cobalt Development Institute (CDI), an international nonprofit founded in 1982 to promote responsible cobalt production and use, about 70% of all the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Interestingly, this African country is also home to some of the largest reserves of coltan, copper, and nickel.

These figures help us understand the cobalt market’s significance for electronic device and battery manufacturers. The need to secure the supply they require to maintain production levels has contributed to the instability that has plagued not only the Congo region, but also some neighboring countries like Rwanda, where armed groups are also interested in controlling the coltan, nickel, and cobalt mines.

Extracting Cobalt Isn't Easy—At All

The extraction of cobalt, coltan, and nickel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is almost always carried out under truly deplorable conditions. The people in the mines work in terrible conditions, without resources and with minimal means, often extracting these metals barefoot and with their own hands in highly unsanitary conditions.

For several years, the media has been reporting on what's been happening in this African region, as well as on the enormous social and political instability caused by the interest of Western and Asian corporations in coltan and cobalt. Some mines have come under the control of armed groups that force local villagers to work in the conditions mentioned earlier.

But the worst part is that many children are also reportedly forced to work in the Congo’s mines. In 2014, UNICEF reported that the number was around 40,000 children, some as young as seven, forced to perform this work in conditions that are difficult to endure, even for adults.

working children of congo

In 2016, Amnesty International decided to escalate this issue to ensure that the companies at the end of the supply chain, which are the large technology corporations of Asia and the West, felt the pressure and were forced to take action.

Apple was quick to respond after the conflict began to catch the public’s attention. In 2018, Bloomberg reported that the company had decided to buy the cobalt they used for their batteries directly from miners. Apple's appeared to want to avoid the conflicts of the region and stop relying on intermediaries, which are largely responsible for this African region’s instability.

Other companies, such as Samsung and Daimler, responded to Amnesty International’s accusations by stating that they were doing everything in their power to trace the origins of both cobalt and coltan. However, they also noted that these raw materials are very difficult to trace, due to the hazy nature of the supply chain.

Given the circumstances, it's clear that this situation will not improve unless the companies purchasing these minerals get as involved as necessary to ensure that the cobalt, lithium, nickel, coltan, manganese, and copper they acquire come from legitimate sources, and that no link in the production chain has been subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment.

Cobalt and the Electric Car

The growth that the electric vehicle market will probably continue to experience in the coming years and the need to equip them with batteries that provide maximum range will only add more pressure to the cobalt market. Nicolas Walewski, a consultant specializing in this field from Alken Asset Management, claims that electric vehicles will represent 20% of the total car market by 2025.

an electric car

When this happens, it will be necessary to extract 200,000 more tons of cobalt per year than today to meet the global demands for this mineral, which would mean tripling current production. This calculation is based on the presumption that, according to Walewski, electric car batteries require between 8 and 12 kg of cobalt.

Technical and scientific development isn't only desirable but also a goal we must protect, as it can contribute to improving our quality of life and distributing opportunities. However, these advancements must arrive without leaving anyone behind, something that is currently not happening. Otherwise, what is being pursued will be unattainable, and instead of reaching a solution, the conflicts may in fact escalate. Let’s hope for better times ahead.

Images | Pixabay | Wikimedia | Pexels | Sdk16420 | Julien Harneis

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