US signs MOU with DRC and Zambia for Cobalt and Copper mining and processing for Electric Vehicle batteries

Edwin Chabuka Avatar

The US department of state released a signed Memorandum of Understanding with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia on electric vehicle battery value chains. The document was signed on December 13, 2022, during the Africa Leaders Summit and states DRC and Zambia’s involvement in the production of Electric Vehicle batteries.

DRC currently holds a majority of the world’s cobalt reserves at around 70% with Zambia coming in second in Africa. Zambia is also the world’s 6th largest copper producer. The MOU is stated to be entrusting the 2 African countries to work on a value chain that covers mining all the way to assembly.

These projects will be operational within Africa and there is mention of enabling the private sector to also be invited to participate in each step of this venture. The US really needs this as it got left far behind in the EV race. China is producing 56% of the world’s supply of EV batteries with Korea coming in second at 26% and Japan with 10%. That’s 92% of the world’s supply of EV batteries coming from Asia alone.

Currently, Chinese companies make up 56% of the EV battery market, followed by Korean companies (26%) and Japanese manufacturers (10%).
The leading battery supplier, CATL, expanded its market share from 32% in 2021 to 34% in 2022. One-third of the world’s EV batteries come from the Chinese company.

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The reason behind the push

Environmentalists are stating that the levels of pollution and greenhouse gases are currently at quite critical levels and in places like Europe, there have been strong measures put in place to try and curb this trend. The push for renewable and green forms of energy has been directed toward vehicle manufacturers with stiff penalties being charged to them if their fleet emissions exceed a stated value. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transportation contributed to the majority of greenhouse gasses emitted in the US at 27%.

The European Union declared that vehicle manufacturers must stop producing internal combustion engine cars by 2035 which is in 12 years. So the global fleet of cars will need to switch from petrol, diesel or hybrid to full electric. However, the supply of batteries to power these electric vehicles cannot adapt fast enough to the deadlines being placed by legislation. And since the US is lagging behind, it is seeing this as an opportunity to capitalize on this emerging new technology and the demands it is generating.

Why copper and cobalt specifically?

Copper is what is used to move electricity or electrical signals from a source to a destination. And so it plays a very crucial role in electric vehicles which are powered purely by electricity. It’s also the fundamental element in the motors that drive the wheels and move an electric vehicle. The average internal combustion engine vehicle uses about 23 kg of copper versus about 83 kg in a similar-sized battery electric vehicle. That is 3.6x more copper which will roughly translate to the car industry requiring 3.6x more copper for the switch to electric vehicles.

The battery’s performance is also dependent on its chemical makeup of it or which materials are used. The idea is we want a battery that supplies a lot of power and also provides enough capacity for a great range between charges. This also needs to be done safely, especially when recharging the battery using fast chargers. Generally, batteries tend to heat up when they are being charged and the faster we charge them the hotter they become. So for a while, EVs were charging at a pace where it took between 8 and 12 hours to charge from zero to full. Nowadays it takes about 25 minutes to fully charge some EVs from zero.

To ensure the battery does not overheat whilst being fed with over 250KW of power, cobalt was employed in the battery’s chemistry. It acts as a stabilizer when batteries are operating close to or at their limits to ensure that energy transfer in and out of the battery is done whilst keeping the temperatures relatively cool.

This factor also means that less active cooling is needed on the battery which further extends the battery life and consequently driving range compared to a battery of the same capacity that does not use Cobalt. The MOU also states that the EV battery value chain should employ ethical standards, a topic of contention when it comes to cobalt. The mining of this mineral is strongly associated with child labor issues in the DRC which is something the US wants to be wary of.

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8 comments

What’s your take?

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  1. Green War

    Nice. Lets hope it works out for our continent mates. This rush to electric is a good opportunity, but its also full of potential pitfalls if they go for unfair deals or replicate the man made oil curse.

  2. The Empress

    Well since China has basically locked up most of the world’s lithium resources in one way or another. The USA is trying to do the same thing with cobalt.
    Now comes the hard part for DRC and Zambia. For DRC it’s getting the cobalt mines to operate in an open and ethical manner, that benefits the communities around those mines as well as the country as a whole.
    That’s going to require not just a magic trick but something closer to an outright miracle!
    Most of the cobalt mined in DRC today is done in mines whose ownership is opaque and not easily traceable. Miners basically rely on their Ancestors to keep them safe at work since the mine owners are only after profits. The use of child labour is rampant with a slight whiff of slavery that’s never been really been confirmed. At least 50% of the cobalt mined is smuggled out of the country.
    So the DRC government has a monumental task ahead of it if it wants to sort out the issues of mine ownership, worker safety, and accounting for all of the cobalt mined in the country. Add the fact that DRC is home to some simply breathtaking levels of corruption and you can already see the next civil war breaking out. Because the communities in the areas where the cobalt is being mined will eventually get tired of having the cobalt not benefitting their areas in any tangible way resulting people starting to talk about a revolution against Kinshasa where the fat of the land will be eaten and not even scraps leave.
    Remember that DRC has been throwing an on and off civil war for decades now. With some areas still being a no go area for government forces. So DRC is definitely going to require a miracle.
    Zambia is now going to be on the world stage like never before in it’s history, having 2 of the most in demand resources for the new era after oil is going to really be a test for the nation. It could either be a blessing or a curse.
    Personally I think that the USA prefers deal with Zambia over the DRC and will put more effort to help them develop their copper and cobalt resources.
    The DRC is an extremely corrupt vipers nest with a complicated and constantly changing political situation, DRC is like a bomb with a ticking clock and no knows how much time is left before it explodes.
    Zambia is everything that DRC is not. The Zambian government is in firm and full control of their country, with a clear political climate where most of the players are known. To put it bluntly, the USA knows exactly who to bribe if and when it’s deemed necessary.

  3. Terrence McKenna

    I guess China was pretty much ahead of the game. They bought almost all lithium mines in Africa. They’re even promising to build a processing plant here in Zimbabwe. These Chinese guys are something else. They’re working really hard. You guys should see what’s happening at Manhidze. Vanhu vanoshanda ava. All their projects are going really fast as promised. I just hope the outcome of this year’s elections won’t hinder the progress being done by our all weather friends😁. I just hope Zimbabwe will be ahead of everyone in Africa in this battery business. It’s so possible

  4. Leo

    That’s all we good at…. selling soil… Afro mentality… What about the value chain up to assembling these vehicles locally is there anyone contemplating this in Africa…

    1. Bingo!

      It’s not possible. We don’t have the skilled labour for such activities to take place. Also, Zimbaeans have this tendency of wanting to be paid high salaries which is not feasible for investors. Everyone invests in China because they know they’ve got cheap, skilled labour. Unlike in Africa. Also, they have stable governments in such countries. Unlike here. A lot of money is needed for such plants. Which is not necessary since other countries are doing it for us

      1. The Empress

        If the demand is high enough, an investor will teach/train workers to do a job.
        The government has failed to put in place the most basic infrastructure that will make this viable ie ea reliable electricity supply cos all factory’s need that it’s like blood.
        The average factory wage in China is around US$1000 which is more than what the average is Zimbabwe.
        I think that it’s more about stability if anything else the stability of the economy is quite important if you are looking to invest.

    2. The Empress

      It’s a choice.
      The government could put in place laws that say such and such resources must be processed up to a certain point before it’s allowed to leave the country. And then stick to the law without any deviation and exceptions,with extremely harsh penalties for those that break the law.
      But the lure of easy money nd no consequences has resulted in the easy option of selling the soil, and the wealth of the country leaves in haulage trucks owned by the connected or morning flights in handbags.

  5. Judith Mulenga

    Now Zambia can create employment for the masses in engineering, technology systems, and reopening the closed mines.
    It will bring the much needed Forex exchange into Zambia.