Tesla will buy more cobalt from Swiss mining company Glencore to use in both Giga Berlin and Giga Shanghai, according to fresh reporting. This provides a boost to Glencore, which faced a bit of a slide over the past two years as the price of cobalt has dropped.
The Financial Times has reported that people familiar with the matter said that Glencore will supply Tesla’s new Shanghai Gigafactry and plans to supply the Berlin Gigafactory with cobalt for its lithium-ion batteries once it is up and running.
In lithium-ion batteries, cobalt is found in the cathode, which is the positively charged electrode. The properties that make cobalt ideal for its battery application are its thermal stability and high energy density. Cathodes that are made with cobalt don’t catch on fire or overheat as easily. They can also store and transfer more energy. Cobalt is also found in other types of rechargeable batteries, such as nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal hydride batteries.
Although it isn’t a rare element, (it’s the 32nd most abundant metal/mineral in the earth’s crust), cobalt isn’t everywhere. It’s primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which produces over 60% of the world’s supply. An unfortunate and sad reality is that the DRC is also known for its child labor for these mines — approximately a fifth of the mined cobalt comes from child miners.
In 2019, Glencore was caught up in a lawsuit regarding its Tilwezembe concession, but the company emphasized that Tilwezembe has been overrun by artisanal miners since 2011 and that they don’t even have access nor any operational or commercial involvement with the mine. Regarding that mine, Glencore has repeatedly tried to get the DRC to resolve the situation and has shared concerns about the labor conditions there.
The sad truth is that not all governments really care about their citizens and don’t have laws to protect children from being used for labor. This is why Tesla’s stance on human rights is very important. In its Impact Report, Tesla said that it is “committed to only sourcing responsibly produced materials.”
Tesla expects all of its suppliers and partners to comply with all national and applicable laws and regulations. Tesla only sources conflict-free minerals, which means that the minerals sourced do not benefit armed groups in the DRC. Tesla also stated that it is committed to ensuring that its suppliers do not use slave or child labor or engage in human trafficking. “Tesla does not, and will not, tolerate the use of slave or child labor in the manufacture of its products.”
Tesla and other companies have been moving away from using cobalt in batteries due to human rights issues and its relatively high price. For example, see: “Tesla Shanghai Model 3 May Go Cobalt-Free Using CATL’s LFP Cells — Diving Deeper” and “Cobalt-Free Car Batteries In The Works For Panasonic & Tesla.”
Quick random fact about cobalt: There are many minerals that contain this grey-silvery metal — cobaltite, erythrite, and skutterudite, for example. There are also a variety of different elements (think oxygen or uranium) that combine with cobalt to create other minerals. You can learn more about that here.