Apple may source cobalt directly from mines as demand skyrockets

22 Feb 2018

Workers at a cobalt mine in Morocco. Image: cornfield/Shutterstock

Apple is seeking a steady supply of cobalt for device batteries.

Cobalt is an essential ingredient in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, which power smartphones and other devices.

In recent years, the proliferation of smartphones and electric vehicles has placed immense pressure on the mining industry.

Discovered in 1739 by Swedish chemist Georg Brandt, cobalt is extracted as a by-product of nickel and copper mining, and it serves as a cathode material for many lithium-ion batteries.

Cobalt supply worries

Major smartphone players are concerned about locking down supplies of the vital component as the major increase in people purchasing electric vehicles means there is far less to go around.

According to Bloomberg, Apple is keen to secure consistent supplies of cobalt for its iPhone and iPad batteries, and it is seeking contracts to secure thousands of metric tonnes of cobalt per annum for a five-year period at a minimum.

The company apparently entered into talks with miners more than a year ago, but the discussions may not amount to any concrete deals. Previous to these talks, Apple had left the purchasing of cobalt supplies to its battery manufacturers as opposed to being directly involved. The company could possibly negotiate a better deal with miners as it would likely purchase a larger amount than smaller manufacturers.

Firms from Volkswagen and Tesla to Samsung are rushing to secure multi-year supplies of cobalt for their lofty electric vehicle production goals, as demand has seen prices triple in just 18 months.

Child labour controversy

Two-thirds of the world’s supply of cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and human rights organisation Amnesty International noted that child labour is strongly linked to the industry in the country.

A report written by the organisation last November noted that only a handful of companies had made progress in terms of investigating supply chain links to child and slave labour. The report did, however, single out Apple as the only company whose actions around the situation could be described as ‘adequate’, with firms such as Microsoft, Vodafone and Huawei taking no action at all.

Last March, a co-inventor of the lithium ion battery, John Goodenough, said his team had begun developing a new solid-state battery that promises to hold three times as much energy as a standard lithium-ion battery. The batteries could take years to come to market, but could create an alternative to the current models used.

Workers at a cobalt mine in Morocco. Image: cornfield/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects