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Climate change

The Human Cost of the Lithium Battery Revolution

The batteries that power our high-tech lifestyle are built using materials extracted in dirty, often life-threatening conditions.
October 3, 2016

If you have a cell phone, laptop, a hybrid car, or an electric vehicle, you may want to sit down. This may hurt.

You have probably heard of blood diamonds and conflict minerals. Maybe you’ve even read up a bit on how big consumer tech companies are trying (and, in some cases, being forced by governments) to sort out where the materials that go into their gadgets come from. But stories about “supply chains,” “globalization,” and “poor working conditions” can seem a world away, or just plain academic.

In a sweeping, heartbreaking series, the Washington Post is making sure it hits home.

Take the example of Yu Yuan, a farmer who lives near a graphite factory in northeastern China. In a video, he swipes at shimmering grime accumulated in his window sill and points at a barren cornfield. The crops turn black with graphite dust he says, and don’t grow properly. He and his wife worry about the air they’re breathing and their water is undrinkable, polluted by chemicals dumped from the graphite plant. “There is nothing here once the factory is done damaging this place,” he says.

Workers in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, tend to an oven that processes slag from the region's cobalt and copper-rich ores.

Over two pieces so far, the Post has traced the path of first cobalt and then graphite as they make their way from mines to factories and ultimately into our hands as the cathodes and anodes, respectively, for lithium-ion batteries. Each story is a remarkable blend of globe-spanning investigative journalism, business reporting, and an appeal to us to confront the consequences of owning the devices that power our high-tech lifestyles.

While graphite is mined and processed mostly in China, a huge amount of cobalt comes from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where “artisanal” miners sometimes dig through the floor of their own houses in search of ore. Mines collapse frequently. Injuries and death are commonplace.

Once extracted, the materials end up in Asia, where companies you’ve probably never heard of turn them into battery parts. The largest battery makers in the world, including Samsung SDI, LG Chem, and Panasonic, then purchase the components and turn them into batteries that go into phones, computers, and cars.

Lithium batteries are prized for being light and having a high energy density compared to other battery chemistries. The modern smartphone would be difficult to imagine without a lithium battery as its power supply. They help power hybrid cars, and the small but fast-growing fleet of all-electric vehicles wouldn’t exist without them.

Interest in electric cars, in particular, is fueled by claims that the vehicles are clean and good for the environment. That may be true in the countries where they are mostly sold. But when we consider the bigger picture, the reality is something else altogether.

(Read more: The Washington Post, "Why We Still Don't Have Better Batteries")

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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