BMW battery-sourcing ethics highlight cobalt-mining issue for electric cars


2018 BMW i3, 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show

2018 BMW i3, 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show

Enlarge Photo

Electric cars provide a zero-emission driving experience, but one of the most important raw materials for their batteries—cobalt—has a supply chain that needs some work.

About half of the world's cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country with high rates of child labor under very poor working conditions.

Now BMW wants to help overcome the social and environmental issues surrounding that raw material.

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In 2014, UNICEF estimated some 40,000 children work in the country's mines, with many focused on cobalt itself.

BMW said it will provide greater transparency into its battery-cell supply chain, with the goal of improving working conditions in the DRC.

It said it will also release information on its smelters and the countries of origin for its various raw materials, including cobalt.

2018 BMW i3 and i3s

2018 BMW i3 and i3s

Enlarge Photo

The German automaker said it also continues to study how it can improve conditions in the DRC, potentially by sponsoring its own cobalt mines.

Mines sponsored by BMW would effectively become models for the DRC to follow to implement better working conditions, and hopefully, curb child labor.

The automaker doesn't buy cobalt itself—its cell suppliers and their suppliers do—but it's well aware of the supply chain.

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BMW said that as demand for electric cars grows, it must take responsibility for safe and sustainable practices.

Aside from BMW, the International Council on Mining and Metals says more than half the cobalt from Congo comes from companies that adhere to ICMM’s sustainability principles, though it recognizes room for improvement.

ICMM previously launched a new partnership with RCS Global to construct more sustainable and safe cobalt-mining practices.

Flat lithium-ion battery back for next-generation Mercedes-Benz electric cars

Flat lithium-ion battery back for next-generation Mercedes-Benz electric cars

Enlarge Photo

Battery makers themselves continue to work on new cells that use less cobalt as well: South Korean cell makers SK Innovation and LG Chem will soon sell a new generation of battery cells that use just half as much cobalt as current generations.

Cell chemistries that contain cobalt, however, tend to have higher energy densities than those without it, making the metal attractive to battery companies seeking the highest energy capacity in the smallest package.

Ultimately, steps such as BMW's latest supply-chain initiatives offer a first step and what could be solutions to a social problem that is likely only to worsen.

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With virtually every global automaker planning increased electrification and more electric cars in the years to come, demand for batteries—and subsequently cobalt—will only grow.

It seems reasonable to assume we'll continue to see news stories on the supply chain for battery cells.

Will "ethical cobalt" draw attention in same way that ethical sourcing of a wide variety of other goods and services has? Stay tuned.

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