China Corners the Market for Cobalt, the Most Precious Material in EV Batteries

Cobalt may become scarce for U.S. car companies.

It will be downer for the proud owner of a sleek and silent Tesla to learn that the material that powers that clean, green machine was torn from a hand-dug pit in the heart of Africa. Such are many of the “mines” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where two-thirds of all the world’s cobalt is obtained from the ore pickaxed by former farmers—sometimes even children—and sold in hundred-pound burlap bags to middlemen.

Miners haul bags of cobalt in southeast Democratic Republic of Congo. (Image credit: Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times.)

Miners haul bags of cobalt in southeast Democratic Republic of Congo. (Image credit: Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times.)

Tesla gets its cobalt from Congo, however—stung by revelations of conflict mining and child labor by the Financial Times—the company has stated that it will procure the metal from legitimate industrial mines free of child labor but did not specify names or locations.

Precious Metals

Would it surprise most car shoppers to learn that the most expensive material in an electric vehicle’s lithium-ion battery is not lithium? There is more nickel (35 kg), more manganese (20 kg) and more cobalt (14 kg), according to figures issued by Argonne National Laboratory in a typical electric vehicle (EV) Li-Ion battery pack, the NMC532. Lithium comes in fourth place in mass, with 8 kg.

But by cost, cobalt is the most precious material. The typical EV battery pack uses $1,764 worth of cobalt compared to $1,005 worth of lithium.

From the Heart of Darkness

The Congo, with its vast mineral sources, the setting for Joseph Conrad’s 1899 classic Heart of Darkness, has become the equivalent of Saudi Arabia as the world turns to renewable energy sources.

Despite the consumer demand, the allure of EVs and the environmental consciousness of the West, most of the sources for material used in EV batteries are found elsewhere. In particular, all the main cobalt mines of Congo are now owned by Chinese interests. Who knew? Not Tesla. Not the United States.[i]

Where EV battery materials are from. The top three countries for each material. (Picture courtesy of The New York Times.)

Where EV battery materials are from. The top three countries for each material. (Picture courtesy of The New York Times.)

“We risked losing our edge as a nation, and China and the rest of the world are catching up,” said U.S. President Joe Biden, acknowledging that the United States had lost some ground, when promoting electric vehicles at a General Motors factory in Detroit. “Well, we’re about to turn that around in a big, big way.”

But is it too late? “The American government failed to safeguard decades of diplomatic and financial investments it had made in Congo, even as China was positioning itself to dominate the new electric vehicle era,” reported Eric Lipton, Dionne Searcey and Michael Forsythe last month in The New York Times.

America’s direct involvement with cobalt mines in Congo ended in 2016 when the last U.S. company sold the rights to the Tenke Fungurume mine—the biggest cobalt mine in the world—to China Molybdenum in a $3.8 billion deal. This was a surprising turn since the U.S. had actively sought to secure strategic materials as far back as World War II. In 1939, Albert Einstein informed then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Congo having high-grade uranium ore, from which the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was created. U.S. interest was extended during the Nixon administration, which sought to keep control of Congo’s mines, promising military aid and other support in return.

Why China? And Why Is This a Problem?

China has become the world’s largest electric car market. By 2017, almost half of all EVs sold were purchased in China, according to the Wall Street Journal. The production of electric vehicles has become a national priority for China. Beijing has declared electric vehicles as one of its seven strategic emerging industries, effectively throwing the full weight of the world’s second biggest economy and the unified determination of a national government behind a mineral grab of continental proportions.

To satisfy a burgeoning population, as well as sustain the world’s second biggest economy, China has had to reach beyond its borders for the means to accomplish its goals. China has claimed more of the ocean around it, including most of the South China Sea. Chinese trawlers are blamed for removing so many fish off the Horn of Africa and turning Somali fisherman into sea-faring pirates. The New Silk Road, the global attempt to turn trade to China’s advantage, has been criticized as a financial trap for underdeveloped nations. China’s ambition goes beyond Earth’s gravity. A Chinese lunar mission returned a rock sample with helium-3, a radioactive isotope, which could power China’s fusion reactors. “China is now building the Silk Road to space,” said James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, who was quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

Buried Treasure

Heterogenite, from which cobalt is refined. (Picture courtesy of Mining Journal.)

Heterogenite, from which cobalt is refined. (Picture courtesy of Mining Journal.)

But back to cobalt, the subject of this article. Only 6 percent of the cobalt China needs for its future fleet of EVs is to be found in China. All the rest of it, that which is not fenced off and protected by possessive nations with their own EV interests, is in Congo.

With the powerful backing of the government, Chinese mining companies have acquired outright ownership or a governing financial interest in 15 of the 19 cobalt mines in Congo. Loans to mining operations from government-backed financial institutions have exceeded $12 billion and lines of credit are said to be an order of magnitude more.

Most cobalt is produced by industrial mining operations, such as the Tenke Fungurume mine. Although the operations at Tenke Fungurume are said to have become more unsafe since the U.S. company relinquished control, most of the world’s conscience has focused on the plight of the freelance, subsistence miners known as creuseurs, French for diggers. Although no match for the industrial mines in total production, contributing only 14 percent of the Congo’s cobalt, their numbers are many, and their plight is now in the world view. Most pitiful to Western eyes is the child labor. UNICEF estimated that 40,000 boys and girls were digging for cobalt ore in 2016. The supply of cobalt has increased by over 50 percent since then.

Doing what is referred to as artisanal mining, hundreds of thousands of Congolese have flooded into the southern part of the Congo. Stories of farmers finding heterogenite (the ore that is refined to make cobalt) under their huts and making fortunes abound. One farmer who tunneled under his hut as well as many of his neighbors following a vein of heterogenite may have made $10,000—a princely sum in a country that had been ravaged by civil war and administered by a government riddled by corruption. Three-quarters of Congolese live on less than $2 a day.

Officials can try to take the pick out of the hands of the creuseurs at their own peril. That is seen by the local diggers as taking away their dream of riches.

“We used to mine in the bush, in the forest. You stopped us. You gave all the city to big industrial companies. Now we discovered minerals in our own plots of land, which belonged to our ancestors. And now you want to stop us? No, that is not going to work,” said one creuseur, who recalls villagers throwing rocks at the mayor who fled. “That’s when the digging really started.”

Traders buy bags of cobalt from the thousands of creuseurs.

Africa struggles with a legacy of plunder by Western nations of all kinds—from people to products. The list is long and the events well documented. Quests for gold, diamonds, rubber,[ii] spices … provide many chapters in the history of colonialism.

Picking up where history leaves off, by all accounts, seems to be the Chinese government. Of this, China’s aggressiveness in securing cobalt ore, resulting in a near monopoly in the Congo, is but one example. With Western nations occupied with internal matters, China has maneuvered to secure supply of the vital ingredients of technology. Should this continue at its current pace, the U.S. and other Western countries will only be able to pick up the crumbs.


[i]In fact, the U.S. may have inadvertently and indirectly helped China gain control of the cobalt mines. The New York Times reports that U.S. President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was with the firm that helped China Molydenum secure the Tenke Fungurume copper and cobalt mine.

[ii]Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, a book about Belgium’s exploitation of Congo, notes that this period was referred to as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience” by Joseph Conrad in 1928.