“When you are a creuseur (miner), you are obliged to do what you can to make ends meet. To be scared, you must first have means,” recalled Odijon Kajumba Kilanga, an “artisanal” miner in the Democratic Republic of Congo who has been mining cobalt for 15 years, going from job site to job site. In the United States, technology that relies on this cobalt surrounds us, dictates our every move with marionette strings while we do the bidding of the corporations that create it. One of the biggest ways that companies like Apple, Samsung, and Tesla profit off of us is through the use of rechargeable batteries, prevalent in everything from EV (Electric Vehicle) sedans to smart watches. These rechargeable batteries are known formally as Lithium Ion Batteries, and one of their most important components is cobalt, a rare ore that is found primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
“Soldiers would hunt us, if they caught you, they would beat you. If you sold your minerals, when you had money, there were street kids, thugs, who could stop you on the road and snatch your money. To pass safely, you had to pay five hundred francs (50 cents USD)” recounted 15 year old Ziki, a cobalt miner since the age of three, when asked about how the Congolese government makes artisanal mining illegal. You will find in nearly every single cobalt mine people working and digging this mineral out by hand, breathing in its toxic dust and often not using gloves while picking it up.
The cobalt industry in the DRC has all but wiped out all other economies in the country, forcing people to work in these extremely dangerous conditions to support their families. Corrupt government officials working with tech companies all over the world severely undercut these miners, making it so they have no choice but to work 12 hours a day to afford rent that steadily rises. Tesla, one of the biggest profiteers of this system has unveiled a plan to expand their production of an alternative battery that does not use Cobalt. One thing I wonder is, will this change make an impact that will make cobalt mining unnecessary in the DRC, and if so, what will be the alternative?
These “alternative batteries” called LiFePo (LFP) are lithium ion batteries that use lithium iron phosphate instead of cobalt. One of the things that makes this more appealing to companies is because it doesn’t use cobalt, the cost to manufacture these batteries is far lower than their ion alternatives, and they have a longer cycle life than the other battery types, meaning they last far longer after many different uses. LFP batteries are also far safer than others, due to their thermal and chemical stability. This comes at the cost of having a lower energy density, meaning the only way the battery can be used effectively and produce enough energy is if it's a bigger battery. This prevents the LFP battery from being used in smartphones, tablets, laptops, or any devices that need thin batteries. Eventually, hopefully, with jumps in technology production, someone will be able to invent small batteries that use the LFP system and don't need to have children being exposed to extremely toxic chemicals and dangerous work conditions. With Tesla switching over, that time may not be so far in the future.