In one of the laboratory classes I teach, students learn techniques to separate heterogenous mixtures of solids. One procedure involves the separation of sodium chloride from beach sand by mixing the solid mixture in water, filtering the resulting slurry to remove the sand and evaporating the water to recover the sodium chloride. In a second procedure, ammonium chloride is added. Students remove this component first by heating the mixture, causing the ammonium chloride to sublimate—the process of a solid transitioning directly to the vapor phase.
Laboratory scale separation techniques remind me of my first job after graduate school. I held a position as an environmental chemist at a chemical manufacturing plant in upstate New York. We used similar techniques in the plant but on a much larger scale.
Not having spent my entire life in academia has afforded me many opportunities to share first-person anecdotes from real-world experiences in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry with my students. They have benefited from these conversations.
I learned many things at that first job, among them, I learned that despite a tome of federal, state, and local regulations, a chemical manufacturing plant is not one of the most pleasant places in the world to work. And this is in America.
Hold on to this thought…
There has been a huge push for EVs (electric vehicles) in this country and that was before the recent surge in gasoline prices caused by Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. A growing number of Americans feels good about driving an EV based on the belief that it is the socially responsible thing to do. But EVs aren’t exactly carbon neutral. A recently published analysis in the Wall Street Journal, illustrated this point with clever animations claiming, “EVs produce fewer emissions overall than their gas-powered counterparts, [but] there are caveats.”
Those caveats are due to the fossil fuel required to provide the energy for each step in the transportation and production of the batteries, beginning with the mining of the crude ores, their refining, and, ultimately, the manufacturing of the batteries themselves at a Gigafactory.
When an EV finally arrives in its owner’s driveway, it already has a substantial carbon footprint. And then it has to be recharged from the power grid by the local electric utility that presumably is utilizing fossil fuels to generate the electricity.
All told, the Wall Street Journal’s analysis, supported by supplemental information from the Department of Engineering at the University of Toronto, Canada, found that it takes on average about 20,500 miles before an EV begins to demonstrate a zero carbon footprint on the environment. There’s no free lunch so-to-speak, whether in economics or thermodynamics, and the discussion of energy demands in EV battery manufacturing from start to finish becomes an eye-opening revelation to many of my environmentally conscious chemistry students. They would do well to think critically, “prudently giving thought to their steps.”
But there is another, more serious wrinkle in the supply chain that throws a wet blanket on the feel-good party of EV-social responsibility. Lithium batteries don’t just contain lithium. They contain other metals and one of them is cobalt—essential for the batteries to perform efficiently.
“Lithium-cobalt batteries are unrivaled,” for their high energy density, thermal stability, high specific power, low self-discharge rate, low overall weight, and greater sustainability due to their ability to be recycled. It seems like a win-win—cobalt helps to make EV batteries recyclable and sustainable, two favorite buzzwords of the EV crowd. What could possibly be wrong with this?
In pulling the curtain back, we learn 60 percent of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the Congo, dug out of the ground by hand, most often by children who are forced into open-pit mines, sometimes at gunpoint. An article in the Washington Post in 2016 entitled “The Cobalt Pipeline,” detailed the terrible plight of the young creuseurs, or diggers, as they risk their lives so the rest of the world can benefit from the latest technology offered by EV and cellphone manufacturers using the lithium-cobalt batteries in their products.
In “Desiring the Kingdom,” James K. A. Smith explains that consumerism necessitates this type of invisibility. He calls it “a learned ignorance.” Using the example of a clothing store in a mall he writes:
They don’t want us to ask, ‘Where does all this stuff come from?’ Instead, they encourage us to accept a certain magic, the myth that the garments and equipment that circulate from the mall into our homes and into the landfill simply emerged in shops as if dropped by aliens. The process of production and transport remain hidden and invisible. This invisibility is not accidental; it is necessary in order not to see that this way of life is unsustainable and selfishly lives off of the backs of the majority of the world.1
Almost all of my students would be oblivious to the plight of these Congolese children if I didn’t include it as one of the faith-integrations in my general chemistry lab course. The “mute” and the “destitute” of the world need their voices. Perhaps one day my students will be in positions to change their world for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
What follows are comments from three of my students in response to my post on their course tile asking them to read the Washington Post story and to comment. It’s a good start.
• Why are people so desperate to earn money that they would risk their lives and the lives of their children and families? …What [are] these companies who need cobalt for batteries doing to create this ugly demand? I feel that it is very important as someone who is studying chemistry to help find ways to find/create a better system of acquiring needed minerals and metals for the growing technologies of the world. We are all children of God and should all be considered the same importance of who and what we are as that. Those that seem to be blessed with more greatness in this life, should really stand up and speak up for those that are less fortunate. We are intelligent beings with the means to continue to learn and grow so that we can invent, create, and expand for the greater good. Not to become selfish and greedy.
• This article is interesting in the sense that it reveals how we are all tied into the complicated network of lithium battery production. In the same way all of these creuseurs are dependent on the detrimental process of mining cobalt in order to live, the article continues to show how many companies are reliant and involved just to produce the batteries that power our phones, laptops and cars. Taking into consideration that the demand for cobalt is expected to double by the year 2025, what we should not be worried about is finding who is responsible for what is happening in Congo. As God instructed, we need to take the blessings we have received and share them to help those who are in need.
• I think we often, myself included, reap the benefits of the materials and ingredients we come in possession of without considering at all where it came from, or what we are endorsing by purchasing these items. It is not a common thought of mine to wonder if a child labored for hours on end, unpaid and treated unfairly, to bring me a new cell phone that I definitely don’t need. It is the duty of a Christian chemist to work to help those who need it, which in the lab may look like developing new ways for our phone to be small and still powerful. We cannot in good conscience use our gifts and the skills we learn for selfish or superfluous ends knowing the call we have as Christians to help the less fortunate and to use our gifts for the glory of God.
To Elon Musk’s credit, Tesla has reduced the amount of cobalt used in the batteries that power its EVs from 11 kilos to 4.5 kilos, a 60% reduction. And there is a cobalt mine in Idaho that has all of its permits in place, has reached its production targets and is planning to start operations later this year. The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation’s Founder and National Spokesman, Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, muses, “Could this start a trend good for people and the planet?”2
I remain hopeful.
Scripture commands us not only to speak up for those who have no voice but to “judge righteously,” and to “defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required,” (Luke 12:48 ESV). Those of us who have been blessed with an abundance—certainly living in America almost guarantees that when compared to the rest of the world—have an obligation to first make ourselves aware of the plight of the less fortunate; but it doesn’t stop with awareness. It then becomes our responsibility to act. We should seek ways to be lavishly generous with our own resources and to “do justice and to love kindness” as we walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8 – ESV).
1 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 101.
2 Beisner, E. Calvin. “New Cobalt Mine in Idaho Could Start a Trend Good for People and the Planet,” https://cornwallalliance.org/2022/03/new-cobalt-mine-in-idaho-could-start-a-trend-good-for-people-and-the-planet/.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Christian Scholar’s Review on April 29, 2022 and is crossposted here with permission.