The work is not easy at the Kamoto Underground Mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where laborers — some of them children — spend long hours each day retrieving copper and separate it from the more lucrative and rare metal known as cobalt.
This mine is one of many such facilities in the DRC, an unstable country with a poor human rights record that dominates the world market for rare metals. Some of the cobalt mined in the DRC is refined domestically, and some is shipped to Asia, where it is refined into a form that’s useful for cutting-edge electronics.
And that refined cobalt is probably in your phone right now, and, if you own an electric car, it’s also in your vehicle’s battery.
Cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries and other phone components, along with other rare metals and rare Earth minerals.
Most of us don’t think about this when checking our email, browsing through Instagram, or messaging our friends. But each smartphone has about 8 grams of refined cobalt in it, about 60 percent of which is originally sourced from the DRC and then turned into a usable form at facilities in China.
Given the massive mobile phone market — Apple alone has about 1.3 billion existing iPhones, according to Bloomberg News — if cobalt and other rare metals were to suddenly become harder to obtain, then we might not be able to buy a new phone every year. Phones could become more expensive or even more scarce.
In fact, trouble is brewing in the market for rare metals, and it has a lot to do with another technological advancement that holds huge promise for solving climate change: electric vehicles.
The demand for cobalt has tripled globally since the 1970s, and the price of cobalt has more than tripled in just the past 18 months, to $80,000 per metric ton, as electric car companies from Tesla to Volvo try to ensure they have a stable supply of their battery components.
In late February, Bloomberg reported that Apple, too, is looking to negotiate long-term contracts for cobalt directly from mines, which is a departure from its past practice of leaving such deals to its suppliers. Apple’s move, though not yet final, signals a major shift may be taking place among tech firms dependent on supplies of metals such as cobalt and lithium, as well as rare Earth minerals, also known as rare Earths, to make their products.
Simply put, there are growing fears that there may not be enough supply to satisfy demand as the appetite for big tech collides with the electric vehicle industry’s sudden growth spurt.
Apple may be just the first among many tech companies that will try to negotiate deals directly with mine operators.
Cobalt is an interesting example, since prices have spiked and supplies are particularly tight. Supplies of cobalt were limited even before electric vehicles arrived on the scene, but now that these cars are taking off in popularity and predicted to grow quickly — potentially constituting more than half of all auto sales worldwide by 2040, the supply chain is even more stretched.
“These materials that people need are becoming harder to get. The supply lines are becoming more opaque,” said David Abraham, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the struggle for a sustainable future in the rare metal age,” in an interview.
Cobalt is mainly produced as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining, and most of the world’s cobalt mines are located in the Congo. In addition to concerns about that country’s stability and the use of child labor in mining, supply bottlenecks are also occurring where the raw material is refined into forms that are suitable for use in electronic devices.
When it comes to rare metals, the U.S. lags far behind
China is the leading refiner of cobalt, meaning that the main source for cobalt used in U.S. products, from Apple to Tesla, is China.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. produces a tiny amount of cobalt per year, well below the needs of EV manufacturers like Tesla.
The Trump administration has recently taken notice of the country’s dependence on foreign sources of these materials, viewing it as a national security threat. In December 2017, President Trump signed an executive order that directs the government to reduce its dependence on China and other foreign countries for rare metals.
“The United States is heavily reliant on imports of certain mineral commodities that are vital to the Nation’s security and economic prosperity,” the executive order said.
“This dependency of the United States on foreign sources creates a strategic vulnerability for both its economy and military to adverse foreign government action, natural disaster, and other events that can disrupt supply of these key minerals.”
The USGS subsequently produced a list of 23 critical minerals, and a pending bill in the House of Representatives would allow expanded mining for these and other rare Earths on public lands. The bill, however, is controversial, given that it would streamline permitting processes for mining operations.
“They’re just trying to open up more lands for more mining. The words “critical materials” in this case doesn’t mean anything when everything’s critical,” Abraham said.
If we are to continue to have access to more and more advanced mobile phones, while also limiting the severity of global warming, then we do need to find a way to expand the supply of rare metals like cobalt.
Consider that low emissions technologies like electric vehicles will need to go from a novelty item for the rich to a widely used, and in fact preferred, option for buyers and auto makers around the world. However, a typical electric vehicle battery uses about 1,000 times the cobalt that a single iPhone does.
The U.S. has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to secure its own domestic supplies of cobalt and other rare metals and rare Earth minerals. Right now, China is by far the dominant player, and is trying to keep it that way by becoming the dominant maker of batteries for electric vehicles.
For example, the U.S. has Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada, where the Elon Musk-founded company assembles its batteries for cars as well as energy storage uses. But China has many facilities as big if not bigger than that.
The Gigafactory, Abraham says, “doesn’t compare to what the hell is going on in China.”
“The war over future materials is playing out in Asia.”
Simon Moores, the managing director at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence in London, said his firm considers all new battery plants with an output of more than 3 gigawatts per hour as “battery megafactories.” This includes the Gigafactory.
“In 2014 we had one megafactory. Today we have 25,” Moores said in an email. “This is creating the base for an electric vehicle future. And besides the Gigafactory, it’s all Asia-centric,” he said.
“It’s funny, but a baker doesn’t question where his flour comes from until the price doubles in a short space of time. It’s the same for these elements,” Moores said.
With personal tech, we’re all the baker in this situation, since higher costs will eventually be passed on to consumers.
If Apple and other phone makers, not to mention the Teslas of the world, can’t find stable, relatively cheap supplies of raw materials, the era of $1,000 iPhones may look quaint by comparison to where we’re headed.