The DRC has the largest cobalt mine in the world, producing more than half of the world’s supply. The main issues with the cobalt from that area are the safety and human rights issues. Sadly almost every smartphone and electric car have some Congolese cobalt in it. Workers in more developed countries are more expensive and will raise the price of the batteries we depend on, but what if there were no workers in a mine? The future of mining is automated.
Mining, by its nature, carries many health and safety hazards as well as social and environmental issues. Cobalt mining has been a hot topic as demand is increasing due to the need for the metal to be used in Lithium-ion batteries, found in electric cars and smartphones. The vast majority of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, producing an average of 64,000 metric tonnes (11 times more than the country that provides the second most amount of cobalt, Russia) which is mined by hand and employs an estimated 40,000 children (UNICEF). This boom in demand for cobalt means its price has skyrocketed, going from a five year average of $30/kg up to $120/kg in March of 2018. Many of the high volume buyers of cobalt are looking to alternative countries like Canada and Australia to source the cobalt they need, but are met with environmental and safety concerns, concerns that can be reached but will raise the price of cobalt and Li-Ion batteries. It is imperative that car makers can keep their costs low to entice people to move away from the internal combustion engine and into an electric vehicle. – Enter Rio Tinto and the mine of the future.
Rio Tinto is a global mining force (LSE:RIO 4 146 GBX) that has embraced technology in a host of its mines, primarily Australia. For productivity and safety, new technologies such as autonomous vehicles and drones are already in use and are a big success; with the company planning a fully autonomous heavy haul train by the end of 2018. Rio Tinto has a fleet of autonomous drills and trucks, which can generate high-quality data ore seam, pinpointing the best place to extract the ore with the most effective and least damaging to the environment. Drones have also been put to use to help evaluate terrain, inspect equipment and provide a safe way to observe in a mining operation. The big takeaway from what Rio Tinto is doing is removing people from the risk.
Many people see the use of automation in mining, energy and heavy industry as a loss of people to be working, but the fact is it’s opening up new positions in supervising and maintenance. Autonomous vehicles, be they a car or mining equipment, need supervision as it is not infallible; and as you are now able to run equipment 24×7, regular maintenance becomes more important. Rio Tinto is moving towards creating an intelligent mine – the mine of the future.
In South Africa, Simulated Training Solutions has created a Virtual Reality blast wall. This tool helps miners train, using an electronic “spray can” to mark holes, and practice detonating explosives correctly. The computer will show them the way the rock will fracture and react based on the holes they have marked, highlighting mistakes. Technology like VR can better train miners, and make better predictions, but will also save time and money, as it will minimize errors. The Glencore’s Mopani Copper Mines in Zambia have installed three VR blast walls and are planning to expand the project.
Back to the mining of cobalt: in 2016 the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals and Chemicals has set up a Responsible Cobalt Initiative, which currently has 32 members, including brands like Apple, Sony and Volvo. The RCI is a program created to tackle the risks associated with the cobalt supply chain, including regulation, sustainability, the safety of people working with cobalt, the environment and responsible sourcing. They are also looking into technologies such as blockchain (the technology behind decentralized currencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum) to improve the traceability of cobalt throughout the supply chain. The blockchain would create a digital paper trail that can be followed to the source, which raises issues with potential errors and fraud.
As mining and mining cobalt embraces technology explicitly, we are hoping to see conditions for people and the environment increase. Technology holds a lot of potentials, but to create the technology we want, we need to mine for metals and minerals, process and refine. Some battery makers have attempted to remove the cobalt from Li-Ion batteries, but researchers at the University of Maryland and the U.S. Army Research Lab have found the way to make better, longer lasting lithium-ion batteries is more cobalt. Let’s all hope investment into autonomous mining equipment and advanced training for miners works its way to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as other countries. It might be a good time to invest in cobalt stocks and futures – if somebody doesn’t invent a Li-Ion battery with no cobalt first.