Battery makers are working to pare down the amount of cobalt in their devices to the bare minimum to control costs and reputational risk. The problem with cobalt is that it’s largely mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that’s been a conflict zone for decades. While most of the material is extracted in commercial mines, about 15 percent is estimated to be from artisanal mines that often use child labor, according to Darton Commodities Ltd.
So companies are under increasing pressure to be able to track where their cobalt is from and show that it’s ethically sourced. This is easier said than done, as the vast majority of the mineral is processed in China where materials from different mines are mixed together indiscriminately.
“Cobalt is unfortunately good at maintaining the structure of the material, it’s like the cement of the battery,” said James Frith, energy storage analyst at Bloomberg NEF. “It prevents deterioration of the chemistry during the phase of charge and discharge.”
The Congo government recently said it will raise royalty taxes on producers for the second time this year. The instability of the supply chain coupled with soaring demand for the material from the fast-growing electric vehicle sector led cobalt prices to hit a peak of $44.08 a pound in late April, more than quadrupling from a level of $10.60 at the start of 2016. The metal is currently trading at $34 a pound.