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Cobalt blues

Fraud, corruption and death in Democratic Republic of Congo cobalt mining

The battery in your cellphone could be powered by cobalt derived from copper that exploited “artisanal miners” — often children — hand dug from open-pit mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But a new DRC government could crack down on the illegal awarding of mine licenses, permits and contracts. And blockchain could make supply chains more transparent.

Eleven-year-old Ziki Swandi was working as an “artisanal miner” (hand-tool excavator) in the Kolwezi/Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He earned about one U.S. dollar per day digging for copper in the abandoned open-pit mines. Ziki’s dream was to quit mining and go to school where he could learn to read and write. At the end of each day, he gave his earnings to his elderly grandmother, who was raising him and three siblings, according to a CBS News report.

UNICEF estimates 40,000 children like Ziki — some as young as seven years old — work with shovels, pickaxes and sacks before and after school at mostly illegal DRC open-pit copper mines. (See As incremental efforts to end child labour by 2025 persist, Congo’s child miners – exhausted and exploited – ask the world to ‘pray for us,’ by Bernadette Vivuya, Equal Times, Oct. 16, 2020).

Many of them toil up to 12 hours per day alongside their parents and nearly 150,000 other men and women as they eke out a bare existence in the Katanga region of the DRC. (See Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Esri.)

The DRC is the source of 62% of the world’s cobalt supply. Kolwezi, the capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the DRC, has the world’s richest supply of the ore. Copper is a source of cobalt — an important element of lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones (five to 10 grams of cobalt per phone), computers (one ounce per computer) and electric vehicles (10 to 20 pounds per vehicle). Forty-two percent of the cobalt supply is earmarked for batteries.

(See Rising cobalt demand from Congo infographic by Hyejin Ahn, Behance. Sources for infographic: The Cobalt Pipeline, by Todd C. Frankel, The Washington Post, Sept. 30, 2016; Is your cell phone powered by child labor? by Hope King, CNN Business, Jan. 18, 2016; and Cobalt ‘moving into a global deficit,’ by Edward Spencer, Resource Stock Digest, June 8, 2017.)

Cobalt boosts energy density and battery life by chemically stabilizing layered battery structures.

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