Is Cobalt Used In Solar Panels?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), dubbed “Saudi Arabia of the Electric Vehicle Age,” produces around 70% of the world’s cobalt. Cobalt is processed in China for about 80% of the time before it is used in lithium-ion batteries.

However, because of the country’s dominance, proponents argue that car and technology corporations will be forced to source from the DRC until experts figure out how to produce affordable cobalt-free batteries.

“There’s just no hunger in America for this right now,” Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of RAID, a human rights organisation based in the United Kingdom, said.

Last year, Congress passed a blanket ban on solar imports from one part of China in response to allegations of forced labour at Chinese polysilicon factories. Customs inspectors seized large shipments from at least three companies, and one major Chinese supplier was blacklisted. Polysilicon is an important component of most solar panels.

Products containing Congolese cobalt, such as lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and energy storage, have eluded such sanctions. Advocates claim that this is because, while many Congolese cobalt mines have severe working circumstances, including poor pay, long hours, unpleasant conditions, and, in some cases, abuse from superiors, they do not fit the definition of forced labour. This is a crucial legal distinction that can lead to customs guard seizures and other harsh penalties.

Despite this, the Biden administration has refused to rule out the possibility of forced labour in the Congolese cobalt mines.

The Biden administration has made broad pronouncements in recent weeks emphasising the importance of safely sourcing metals for the energy transition.

The Department of the Interior developed a set of mineral sourcing standards, emphasising the significance of “socially responsible mining.” The Energy Department released a slew of reports on supply chains, citing cobalt from Congo as a concern for manufacturers and the need to promote human rights norms at foreign mines.

According to a report from the Government of Energy, cobalt is one of the areas in the lithium-ion battery supply chain where the department wishes to see “environmental, climatic, or human rights issues appropriately handled.” That report, however, did not address allegations of human rights violations in Congolese mines.

Advocates also hesitant

Few people are asking for the United States to utilise the blunt tool of government to rein in bad actors in the area of cobalt mining, in comparison to the solar panel measures.

“I don’t know if anyone is submitting that kind of complaint for cobalt,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Jim Wormington said.

The fundamental reason for this is that even pro-human rights organisations do not want Congolese cobalt to go unpurchased.

Indeed, for fear of jeopardising the livelihoods of miners in a deeply destitute corner of the world, Western human rights advocates and their Congolese affiliates are opposed to strong sanctions against cobalt importers.

“According to Daniel Mul, an Oxfam America policy lead on extractive industries, “no one among those actors is advocating for a move away from cobalt extraction in DRC.” “That, in my opinion, is not the best way for automobile makers or the US government.

Cobalt mining onshoring hasn’t piqued organised labor’s interest either. Although the majority of cobalt from the DRC is processed in China, and many mines are held by Chinese enterprises, China-hawk conservatives have largely remained out of the conflict. Even cobalt miners in the United States don’t want a crackdown on their main competitor.

“Governance and money are two things they sorely require. People who can come in and say, “We’re going to do this right,” are desperately needed. Greg Young, executive general manager of Jervois Mining Ltd., a firm constructing a cobalt mine in Idaho, said they don’t need everyone to flee. ” That is precisely what they do not require.

The issue begs the question of when cobalt’s human rights record might jeopardise the operations of electric vehicle and battery manufacturers.

“The answer is “as soon as it is prioritised by legislators in the United States,” according to Morgan Bazilian, professor and head of the Colorado School of Mines’ Payne Institute for Public Policy. ” That’s all there is to it.

A long history of problems

In 2010, Congress inserted provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that targeted the selling of conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The purpose was to address earnings from four Congolese commodities: gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten, which civil society groups attributed to atrocities following the Second Congo War.

Years later, in 2016, Amnesty International produced a study exposing child miners at informal mine sites known colloquially as cobalt mines, which garnered media interest for the first time “Artisanal mines are mines that are operated on a small scale.

According to the organisation, roughly 40,000 youngsters worked in those mines, which accounted for nearly one-fifth of the world’s cobalt supply at the time.

Unlike during Dodd-Frank, Congress stayed out of the debate. The study was released at the close of the Obama administration, following a years-long legal battle between the Treasury Department and business groups over the conflict minerals rule.

Within a year, President Trump arrived, who was not a supporter of the conflict minerals legislation: According to various media accounts, his staff wrote an executive order nullifying the phrase in February 2017, but it was never signed (Greenwire, Feb. 8, 2017).

Because of the dominance of consumer goods like laptops and cellphones, as well as the expanding demands of electric car makers, the global economy has become more reliant on cobalt since 2017. (Greenwire, Dec. 15, 2017).

Manufacturers have attempted to resolve the human rights issue by removing cobalt from their supply chains. Although automakers do not believe cobalt-free batteries are ready for widespread usage in EVs, Tesla Inc. and other EV manufacturers aim to gradually phase out the metal.

Simultaneously, through corporate responsibility efforts such as the Responsible Minerals Initiative, businesses have established complex webs of certification to address any concerns about human rights in their cobalt sources.

Industry-led checks, according to those engaged, are a step in the right direction.

“They’re not perfect, but they’re doing a decent job on them, according to Raphal Deberdt, a minerals programme associate at the Responsible Sourcing Network, whose director is on the Responsible Minerals Initiative’s board of directors. The effort is a cobalt-related industry auditing programme that looks for abuses in particular mineral supply chains.

Some industry analysts believe it is critical for the public to understand that self-auditing technologies are not a substitute for government regulation.

“Allowing businesses to self-report is only one part of the equation. According to Kwasi Ampofo, BloombergNEF’s head of metals and mining, “it’s basically about making sure there’s a strong stick with consequences.”

“Companies would rather self-regulate than be regulated by others. The government is in charge of deciding how high they should jump.

This is also where the solar industry’s difficulties with Chinese polysilicon differ from those with Congolese cobalt: they entail clear proof of widespread, state-sponsored forced labour, which is illegal.

According to rights experts, China’s forced labour programmes, which hold Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, essentially create a pipeline from jails to companies, including locations that produce polysilicon and its precursors for solar panels.

Compulsory work, restricted freedom of movement, surveillance, and threats are frequently associated with political and cultural indoctrination. The programmes, according to human rights activists, constitute a type of cultural genocide.

Under the 1930 Tariff Act, customs inspectors in the United States have considerable power to hold any import they suspect of being created with forced labour.

According to news reports and solar industry sources, this happened with solar shipments at least three times last year. One cargo, according to reports, contained 100 megawatts of panels, enough for numerous utility-scale solar projects.

Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, claimed in August that strong customs enforcement might stifle solar’s growth “cannot be underlined enough (Energywire, Aug. 18, 2021).

SEIA spokespeople now feel that the majority of their members have moved their supply chains out of Xinjiang, where forced labour programmes are concentrated. According to a law passed by Congress late last year, the region’s products may soon be subject to a blanket prohibition.

Human rights organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, have documented conditions at cobalt mine sites that they find disgusting but that they claim do not reach the legal standard for forced labour enforcement.

RAID revealed in November that workers at five of the DRC’s main cobalt mines had been physically harassed by supervisors, were paid well below a liveable wage, and were trapped in unfair labour agreements (Greenwire, Nov. 8, 2021).

Unlike the Amnesty International study on artisanal miners, RAID was able to link cobalt mined at the sites accused of misconduct to manufacturers that used the metal. However, the group did not find any acts that they would consider to be forced labour or child labour.

Following early media coverage of the findings, US businesses contacted RAID, and the organisation informed officials of a US Senate committee. However, neither the government nor American corporations have taken any action, according to Van Woudenberg.

According to Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the legal nonprofit International Rights Advocates, the only recent example of bipartisan cobalt legislation came earlier this year when Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation prohibiting defence contractors from purchasing cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earths mined or processed in China (E&E Daily, Jan. 18).

A considerable amount of cobalt mined in the DRC is processed in China, and Chinese corporations own some of the world’s largest industrial cobalt mines.

“In order to enact human rights legislation in the United States right now, you have to clear an extremely high bar, according to Wormington.

In solar panels, what precious metals are used?

Mineral minerals used in modern solar cell technology include cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, and tellurium.

What is the most common metal used in solar panels?

Silicon is the most prevalent semiconductor material used in solar cells, accounting for over 95% of all modules sold today. It’s also the second most prevalent element on the planet (after oxygen) and the most frequent semiconductor in computer chips. Silicon atoms are linked together to create a crystal lattice in crystalline silicon cells. This lattice provides a well-organized structure that improves the efficiency of light-to-electricity conversion.

Solar cells built of silicon now offer a high efficiency, low cost, and extended lifetime combination. Modules are projected to survive for at least 25 years, producing more than 80% of their initial power.

Thin-Film Photovoltaics

One or more thin layers of PV material are deposited on a supporting material such as glass, plastic, or metal to create a thin-film solar cell. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium diselenide are the two most common thin-film PV semiconductors on the market today (CIGS). Both materials can be put directly on the front and rear surfaces of the module.

After silicon, CdTe is the most prevalent PV material, and CdTe cells may be manufactured with low-cost manufacturing procedures. While this gives them a more cost-effective option, their efficiencies are still inferior to that of silicon. In the lab, CIGS cells offer ideal PV material qualities and high efficiency, but the intricacy of mixing four parts makes the transition from lab to production more difficult. To permit long-term operation outdoors, both CdTe and CIGS require more shielding than silicon.

Perovskite Photovoltaics

Perovskite solar cells are a form of thin-film solar cell that gets its name from its crystal structure. Layers of materials are printed, coated, or vacuum-deposited onto an underlying support layer, known as the substrate, to create perovskite cells. They’re usually simple to put together and can achieve efficiency comparable to crystalline silicon. Perovskite solar cell efficiency have increased quicker in the lab than any other PV material, from 3% in 2009 to over 25% in 2020. Perovskite PV cells must become robust enough to withstand 20 years outdoors in order to be commercially viable, thus researchers are aiming to improve their durability and develop large-scale, low-cost manufacturing procedures.

Organic Photovoltaics

Organic PV, or OPV, cells are made up of carbon-rich (organic) molecules that can be tuned to improve a specific PV cell function like bandgap, transparency, or colour. OPV cells are currently roughly half as efficient as crystalline silicon cells and have shorter operational lifetimes, but they could be cheaper to produce in large quantities. They can also be applied to a variety of support materials, such as flexible plastic, allowing OPV to be used for a wide range of applications. PV

What is the role of cobalt in renewable energy?

Cobalt’s applications are as varied as they are long-lasting. Since its discovery as a metal in 1739, cobalt has been utilised in a wide range of applications, including jet turbine alloys, hard metals, and orthopaedic implants, as well as clean fuels, inks, and colours for pottery, enamel, and glass. It is also the active component of vitamin B12, which is required for human and animal health and vitality. However, as the world develops more sustainable energy sources, the most important application of cobalt may be as a raw ingredient in rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable batteries, such as those used in portable devices, stationary applications, and e-mobility, account for more than half of all cobalt manufactured today. As electric vehicles become more common, demand for battery commodities such as lithium-ion and cobalt is expected to rise, raising questions about whether there will be enough supply.

The Cobalt Institute (CI) is a non-profit trade organisation dedicated to promoting responsible and sustainable cobalt production and use in all forms. Lorna Malkin of the Innovation Platform spoke with David Weight, a former President of the CI, about the growing relevance of cobalt in the renewable energy sector and why this metal, among others, will be critical in the green energy transition.

How is cobalt currently sourced?

It’s vital to remember that cobalt is created as a by-product of large-scale copper and nickel mining to the tune of 90%. Only Managem’s Bou-Azzer mine in Morocco, which mines cobalt as a primary metal from a polymetallic sulphide ore, is an exception. The majority of cobalt is produced as a by-product of large-scale copper mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but there is also a proportion produced by artisanal and small-scale mining operations; this activity is perfectly legal and often at a subsistence level, but it is poorly regulated. Overall, large-scale mines, particularly those in western nations, adhere to international best practise standards and have well-established ECG programmes. As a result, these mines will be carefully regulated and will have environmental stewardship, occupational health and safety, and other requirements. There has been a lot stronger push for sustainable mining methods in the last 30 or 40 years, and you can see from the larger mining firms that their Entreprise Gnrale du Cobalt (ECG) duties include sustainable performance objectives that must be met. International measurements will be used to assess the long-term viability of the major copper and nickel producers, and it is required of them to evaluate their performance independently and publicly. The most pressing problem for cobalt, and indeed other metals and minerals, at the moment is that they are sourced and used responsibly and sustainably.

When you obtain your raw material, responsible sourcing implies you know who contributed it and that it was created in an ethically acceptable manner. Sustainability issues are constantly addressed and improved since each product’s environmental footprint must be monitored internationally in order to assess its environmental impact throughout its life cycle.

How important is cobalt in the renewable energy market as we move towards carbon neutrality?

It is currently on the verge of becoming crucial. We need to take a wide view of this because, in the first case, there is a paradigm shift from internal combustion engines to electric mobility, which is being pushed by a global desire to decarbonize global economies. The massive transition from horse-drawn carriages to internal combustion engines, for example, is analogous to the transfer from internal combustion engines to rechargeable batteries used in electric transportation; it will be a massively disruptive transition. The globe will transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources, which will require a specific set of energy metals and rare earth elements.

The lithium-ion battery has revolutionised the industry by allowing electric mobility, and the majority of lithium-ion batteries, including lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide (NMC) and lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminum-oxide (NCA) batteries, contain cobalt. The cobalt-containing batteries offer the highest specific power density and specific power capacity. There will be no energy transformation without access to this entire suite of metals, of which cobalt is a key component.

What are the main challenges that need to be overcome to establish a circular economy for batteries? And what advantages does cobalt offer here?

There is a strong drive for a completely circular economy around the world, and all metals and minerals are moving in that direction. Metals, in general, are suitable for the circular economy since they are only used in a process or product, and thus are never consumed. As a result, it is theoretically infinitely recyclable. Metals are an excellent fit for the circular economy paradigm.

The important thing to remember about cobalt, and indeed other metals, is that the world wants to minimise its demand for fundamental raw resources. It then wants those raw materials to go into smart products, which should be created more efficiently and be reusable, repairable, and recyclable in order to reduce the product’s overall environmental impact. The environmental impact of a product will eventually determine whether or not consumers want to purchase it. Consumers want to know they’re buying things with the least amount of environmental impact. Adopting the circular economic model results in less waste; you then want to recycle as much of that garbage as possible, with only the bare minimum going back into the environment, lowering the need for basic raw materials. Because they are (possibly) indefinitely recyclable, all metals play a significant role in the circular economy, which is perhaps one of the reasons for their importance in the energy transition.

In terms of the growing demand for cobalt-based batteries, what do you think the predominant applications will be?

It’s crucial to note that the present cobalt market has a long history, dating back to the 1920s when high-performance alloys were first introduced. The traditional cobalt market still exists if we overlook the consequences of the COVID pandemic, which has clearly harmed the industry. Prior to the invention of batteries, cobalt was mostly employed in metallurgical applications, such as high-performance alloys (so-called “super alloys”) used in jet engines, prosthetic implants, and hard metals for industrial cutting and grinding. Cobalt is also utilised as a catalyst in the textile industry to make Purified Terephthalic Acid (PTA) or mass-produced plastics for injection moulding. Cobalt is used in almost every aspect of product finishing, from the ultimate finish on your phone or laptop to vitamin B12, which is necessary for good health and energy.

Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen the introduction of strong rechargeable batteries, which currently account for around 60% of the cobalt market and are expected to continue to increase. People are beginning to recognise cobalt as a critical commodity, prompting inquiries about how it is sourced and whether there is an adequate supply. We expect the market for cobalt batteries to increase significantly after COVID-19, and even the traditional cobalt market to grow at a rate of roughly 5% per year. According to the World Bank, demand for cobalt might rise by about 500 percent by 2050 to meet clean energy demands, which is a significant issue for this metal. Cobalt isn’t a primary metal because it requires the supply of copper and nickel to be extracted, thus it’s a complicated scenario. We need to know how much cobalt can be made available since there is concern about whether cobalt can meet the demands posed by renewable energy technology. Demand is expected to expand dramatically in the coming years, so we must be very conscious of how the sector can adapt. Deep sea mining is one such approach that has sparked interest.

Can you explain any initiatives that will help ensure this demand for cobalt can be met, and met sustainably?

There are a slew of enterprises claiming to be pushing towards cobalt production, but they’re doing it in small quantities. Because the DRC produces more cobalt, there is a question of whether the DRC can increase its copper production (and, indeed globally the nickel production). The nickel and copper markets must be running properly in order to boost cobalt supply; cobalt is not found in every nickel and copper deposit. Cobalt resources can be found mostly in Central Africa, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Indonesia, and, as previously said, there is interest in new sources of cobalt, such as deep sea mining.