Apple battery

Producing lithium batteries requires cobalt, an expensive-to-produce metal tied to human rights violations. Companies like Apple are seeking alternatives.

What’s a light, silvery sheet of metal that’s ushered in a technological revolution and changed the world, especially in recent years?

It’s not the iPhone — it’s cobalt, a metal that powers the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries of the iPhone and other mobile devices, laptops and electric cars.

Given consumers’ insatiable need for new, better technology around the world, the current economy for cobalt and other in-demand metals isn't sustainable. Cobalt production must increase nearly 500 times in the coming years to meet increases in demand, according to the World Bank.

Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon who also serves as the CEO of aeronautics company Blue Origin, said if we continue on the trajectory of unlimited demand in a world with finite resources we will face an energy crisis, according to the World Economic Forum. 

“This is just arithmetic,” Bezos warned. “It will happen.”

Cobalt is expensive to produce. It costs nearly $33,000 to produce one ton of cobalt. The metal is often a byproduct of copper and nickel mining activities, so its value fluctuates with the markets for these metals.

Cobalt is most commonly mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it’s widely known yet rarely discussed that cobalt mining is associated with grave human rights abuses at the current levels of demand. 

Apple was named in a 2019 lawsuit among other tech firms, dealing with Congolese child labor in cobalt mines. The suit was filed by International Rights Advocates, and Siddharth Kara, an anti-slavery economist researcher. The suit identified that child labor is in Apple and other tech companies’ supply chain, including the UK mining company Glencore and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, a major Chinese cobalt firm.

Companies like Apple, Samsung and Tesla that don't wish to be associated with the high human costs of rare metals are seeking alternatives to cobalt, or finding sourcing alternatives. In the future, devices could become like a deposit, and tech companies might implement “reuse models” with the same idea as the milkman of yore. Or, cobalt will be sourced ethically elsewhere.

Luckily, there are alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, and cobalt-free batteries have been identified as an important research goal, according to Science, a peer-reviewed journal. Researchers at the University of Texas are working on a cobalt-free battery. Likewise, Tesla announced its shift to cobalt-free batteries earlier this year.

Recovery technology can make a big impact in how the world reduces demand for cobalt. Apple has introduced robots that disassemble used devices, including Dave, a new robot helping to advance the recovery of rare earth metals — steel and tungsten — from disassembled components and scrap. 

Sign up for the Madison Business Review Email

The Cupertino, California-based company is also developing return programs for old devices where materials would be recovered such as Apple Trade In, which directed 11.1 million devices to new users in 2019. It’s also beginning to implement circular supply chains where used devices are returned and recycled. Dependence on cobalt will continue to have high costs.

It makes sense to recycle non-ferrous metals such as cobalt, because they infinitely recyclable, and non-ferrous metals like cobalt are still usable even when your screen cracks or the hard drive on laptops dies. 

In addition to replacing cobalt batteries, some companies are looking to source their cobalt from unusual places not associated with the DRC. Cobalt still works the best in lithium batteries. It provides needed stability in the negative end of the battery — the cathode, so it might make sense to keep using it. 

Companies like Blue Origin are looking to the stars — literally — for the mining industry. Meteorites are known to contain cobalt. If we could harness the technology to outsource our heavy industry such as mining to space we could satisfy the growing global demand for cobalt. The ocean floor is another potential source for more cobalt. 

But alternative sourcing may not be ideal: The world has demand problems with helium, copper, tungsten and other metals. Demand is infinite while resources aren't. 

Scientists have warned that humans have to curb this insatiable demand. Even if humans move heavy industry and mining into space, unlimited demand can’t be sustainable in the cosmological near-term. 

“Once you’ve exploited the solar system, there’s nowhere else to go,” Martin Elvis, senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, said.

Humans must reckon with their current levels of demand or find new frontiers to satisfy it.

Jillian Lynch is a senior international affairs major. Contact Jillian at lynch8jm@dukes.jmu.edu.

Disclaimer: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself and it expresses my own opinions. I’m not receiving compensation for it and I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.