Written by Tatiana Lebreton Published on 9 June 2023 ✔ Cobalt is a vital component for making electric car batteries✔ Cobalt mining is linked to human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo✔ Iron has already replaced cobalt in around 50% of EV batteries in ChinaCobalt is a vital component in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, but mining for this metal has become extremely controversial. And as demand for EVs is set to increase, so will the need for cobalt.The controversies surrounding cobalt are a key reason why many scientists and companies are looking for alternatives to use in batteries. But are these necessarily more ethical and sustainable?To get a better understanding of the issue, this article will take you through what cobalt is, how it’s used and mined, and what the controversies surrounding it are. We’ll also explore some alternatives to cobalt, and explain how likely they are to replace it. What's on this page? 01 What is cobalt and why do we need it? 02 Where is cobalt mined? 03 Why is cobalt mining so controversial? 04 What are the best alternatives to cobalt? 05 What is the future of cobalt mining? 06 Summary 07 FAQs What is cobalt and why do we need it?Cobalt is a hard, brittle metal that is found in very small quantities around the world, both on land and in seabeds. It has a very high melting point – 1,495 Celsius (°C) – and it doesn't corrode easily.These properties have allowed cobalt to become a vital component for making rechargeable lithium-ion batteries – the kind used in EVs and electronic devices, such as mobile phones and computers.When combined with other metals, cobalt is perfect for lightweight, energy-dense batteries that have a low risk of overheating, and are very durable. This is the same reason why cobalt is also used for making engines or turbines, which have metal parts that need to be particularly heat resistant.You can find out more about the other metals and minerals used in EV batteries by going to our page. Where is cobalt mined?Cobalt is mined in several countries, with the top producers including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Russia, Australia, and the Philippines.However, the DRC is by far the largest cobalt producer, responsible for around 70% of global production.It’s also worth noting that most mines aren’t dedicated to extracting cobalt alone. In fact, 98% of cobalt is produced as a byproduct of copper or nickel mining, according to the Cobalt Institute. Why is cobalt mining so controversial?Cobalt mining is controversial because it’s been linked to human rights abuses – especially in the DRC – and environmental degradation.Most cases of exploitation and unsafe working practices occur in ‘artisanal mines’, where workers hand dig for cobalt. These account for around 20% of the cobalt mines in the DRC.Several human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, have reported that cobalt miners in artisanal mines are exposed to toxic chemicals, work for long hours with little pay, and that many of them are children as young as seven.There’s also an environmental cost to cobalt mining. Mining in general is a highly polluting activity, as dust, metal particles, and chemicals used in the mining operation often end up in the local soil and water supplies. In the case of cobalt, these particles are toxic to humans and plants.It’s also estimated that cobalt mining produces around 1.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year, according to a 2021 Roskill report. It takes a lot of energy to mine and extract cobalt from the ground, and machinery used for this is usually powered by gas and oil.With sales of EVs set to increase 30% year on year until 2025, the negative environmental impacts of cobalt mining could get worse. The same 2021 Roskill report projects carbon emissions from cobalt mining could almost double by 2030. What are the best alternatives to cobalt?So far, the viable alternatives to cobalt for use in batteries are nickel, manganese, and iron.But these alternatives aren’t used alone. As is the case with cobalt, they're combined in varying quantities with other metals to produce stable, heat- and corrosion-resistant batteries.We’ll explore more about each of these alternatives in the sections below.NickelNickel is a much more common metal than cobalt, with scientists estimating that there are around 350 million tonnes of nickel on Earth. By contrast, there’s only around 7.6 million tonnes of cobalt.This metal is already being mined in several countries, including Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Russia and Canada. In fact, 38% of cobalt production is actually a byproduct of nickel mining. It’s used in many consumer and industrial products as a plating material.But even though nickel is already used in batteries, it’s not usually used as the primary component because it isn’t quite as heat- and corrosion-resistant as cobalt.The good news is that researchers at the University of California have come up with a nickel-based battery component that has high stability – meaning it doesn’t degrade at high temperatures. They did this by combining the nickel with other metals, such as titanium and manganese – another proposed cobalt alternative.That being said, nickel mining is subject to the same controversies as cobalt mining. Namely, environmental pollution, high carbon emissions, and human exploitation.ManganeseManganese is another cobalt alternative. It’s the fifth most abundant metal on the planet, and it’s already mined in countries such as South Africa, Australia, and China.Its most common use is in the steel industry because it provides greater strength and resistance when mixed with other metals. It’s also often used alongside cobalt and nickel in batteries, but isn’t the primary component.However, in 2022, some car manufacturers, such as Tesla and Volkswagen, stated they could potentially replace cobalt with manganese in EV batteries, after new research suggested it could be a good alternative option.This is supported by scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne Institute, who have seen success with batteries made of manganese and nickel mixes. However, they noted that manganese-based combinations for batteries are less stable than the current cobalt ones.IronIron is another increasingly popular alternative to cobalt, and is used in batteries in the form of lithium iron phosphate (LFP). It’s mined in around 50 countries, but the biggest exporters are Australia and Brazil.LFP batteries are cheaper to produce than cobalt- or nickel-based ones, and also last longer.They’re already used in China, and accounted for around half of the battery capacity of EVs sold there in 2022, according to research from Adamas Intelligence.Following this trend, major car producers in the West, such as Tesla, Ford, and Volkswagen announced in early 2023 that they plan to start using iron-based batteries in their cars.However, there are downsides to iron-based batteries. They tend to hold less energy than combinations that use nickel, manganese, and cobalt, for one. And again, iron mining – like all mining – contributes to environmental degradation and emits high levels of GHGs. What is the future of cobalt mining?Cobalt mining will probably become more common in the near future, with supplies from the DRC already forecast to be 24% higher in 2023 compared to 2022. But this increased level of mining might not last forever.EVs might not use cobalt-based batteries in the long term future, even if demand for electric cars continues to increase. That’s because cheaper and less controversial alternatives, such as iron-based batteries, are already being used successfully.Some organisations, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development, have also stressed the importance of reducing the negative humanitarian and environmental impacts of cobalt mining.But limiting the negative environmental impact of mining is challenging, even if machinery is being fuelled by green energy. It’s difficult to control where dust and metal particles go during drilling, and mining by its nature destroys habitats. SummaryCobalt is a vital component of EV batteries, but mining it challenges the sustainability of electric cars.Even if the cobalt mining industry improves working conditions for miners, one problem still remains: mining of all types of metals, including cobalt alternatives is still an unsustainable, polluting activity.Instead of switching from one metal to another, a better long-term solution would be to create a sustainable battery industry. According to The Global Battery Alliance 2019 report, this should include not only making mining ethical and sustainable, but also incentivising battery producers to make recycling part of their business structure. FAQs Is cobalt mined in the UK? Cobalt is not currently mined in the UK, but it was in the past. In the 18th and 19th century, there were a few cobalt mines located in the south-west of England, north Wales, and central Scotland.It’s unlikely that new mines will be opened in the UK too, since there isn’t any modern research analysing UK areas that could be rich in cobalt, according to the Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre. How much cobalt is in EV batteries? Most EV batteries are made of around 10% to 20% cobalt, though it depends on the make of the battery. Tesla, for example, is making batteries that are made of just 3% cobalt, according to CEO Elon Musk. Will cobalt supplies run out? Cobalt supplies will not run out, but there could be a shortage in the late 2020s to early 2030s, according to a 2022 study in Nature Communications. This is because demand for electric vehicles is outpacing the rate at which cobalt is mined and refined.The shortage can be mitigated if we use and develop more alternatives to cobalt for use in batteries, and pursue battery recycling efforts. Written by: Tatiana Lebreton Tatiana has written about multiple environmental topics, including heat pumps, energy-efficient household products, and solar panels. She is dedicated to demystifying green tech to make eco-friendly living more accessible.