Battery technology raises uncomfortable questions of the supply chain

1 min read

The move to battery powered vehicles is gathering speed. The UK has joined France in pledging to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 while the UK government has agreed to invest over £1billion in clean and battery technologies.

Market research suggests that this market could be huge and as a result the opportunities for suppliers of lithium and cobalt, key components in large power packs, could be enormous.

So far so good but before we get carried away battery makers are already struggling to secure enough supplies of these minerals. Pressure is growing on the mining sector to find new sources and, to prevent future shortages and to enable a sustainable life cycle for these new technologies, recycling processes for lithium batteries will have to be developed and introduced. However, as yet, very little is being done, the economics aren't great. It’s extremely expensive to extract lithium from old batteries.

As for current supplies of these minerals, predictably, around 65% of cobalt supplies come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Ravaged by an ongoing civil war the cost of cobalt production has surged and market prices have jumped by 90%.

Despite the promise of clean power, electric vehicle manufacturers could be very vulnerable to the unpredictability of the political situation in the DRC. Many are already signing up to long term agreements with leading miners to secure supplies. Demand for other key battery ingredients, such as graphite and lithium carbonate, are also outstripping supply.

Figures from the UN and Amnesty International suggest that mines across the DRC currently employ over 40,000 children to extract minerals including cobalt and despite efforts to ensure conflict free minerals and companies like Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Daimler and Volkswagen are continuing to fail in their undertaking to provide even basic checks to ensure that they do not use cobalt mined by children and this wont be helped by US President Trump’s signalling his intention to suspend the world’s first conflict-free minerals law.

Perhaps proponents of this battery revolution should pause a little and take some responsibility not only to ensure its not being built on the shoulders of child slave labour but that the longer term threat to the environment posed by battery technology is addressed with a greater degree of urgency, than is presently the case.