As part of a cross-industry initiative, BMW Group, BASF SE, Samsung SDI and Samsung Electronics have launched a joint cobalt pilot project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A contract to this effect between the companies, together with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, will aim to ‘improve artisanal mining working conditions, as well as living conditions for surrounding communities’.

Artisanal mining is small-scale or subsistence mining activity that is not undertaken by established mining companies.

The scope of the new initiative will span over one pilot mine within the next three years, and the partners will not operate the mine.

BMW said the fully privately financed project seeks to pilot an approach to address challenges in artisanal mining. As it is limited to one pilot mine site and the surrounding community, it seeks to contribute to identifying workable solutions that lead to better working conditions at the mine site. If proven effective, these measures ‘could then be scaled up to other legal artisanal mine sites and enhance systemic challenges in the longer run’.

Cobalt is a key component in the production of batteries for the automotive and electronics industries. The world’s largest known reserves of this raw material are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Industrial mining accounts for approximately 80-85% of Congolese cobalt production, with artisanal mining operations producing the remaining 15-20%.

Currently, BMW notes, companies are facing challenges in the areas of environment, health and safety, and human rights when cobalt is extracted through artisanal mining.

BMW says the initiative is the first time partners from automotive, chemical and consumer electronics industries have come together in a project on the ground to address the challenges of artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The pilot project builds on a feasibility study jointly conducted by GIZ and BMW Group. Insights gained from visits to several artisanal mines, stakeholder interviews and surveys of miners and community members were instrumental in shaping this project approach.

The project also contributes to the goals of global initiatives, such as the Global Battery Alliance (GBA), to foster sustainable supply chains.

Some analysts have warned that the push into electric vehicles could be accompanied by a steep rise in the price of cobalt, which is obtained as a by-product of mining nickel and copper. The US has designated cobalt as a ‘critical mineral’. However, the use of cobalt in batteries for EVs could evolve so that it is needed in much smaller quantities than presently – that’s where the technology is heading, some experts claim.