Automotive designer and entrepreneur Henrik Fisker refers to cobalt as the “blood diamonds” of lithium-ion battery production. Much of the world’s cobalt currently comes from mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labor and other serious problems continue.

For electric vehicle developers, cobalt presents a conundrum because the chemical is a crucial element of lithium-ion batteries and likely to be essential for next-generation battery technology as well. Fisker explained that cobalt serves as a stabilizer. “We’ll still need it even as we go to solid-state batteries,” he says.

This fall, the chairman and CEO of Fisker Inc. joined the board of directors for First Cobalt, a company that formed last year to explore, develop, and refine cobalt material in North America for sale back to the American electric vehicle market. Their goal: ethically sourced and sustainable cobalt.

Recently we caught up with Fisker and Trent Mell, president and CEO of First Cobalt, to learn more about their efforts.

Henrik, what are you working on now at Fisker Inc.?

Henrik Fisker: A lot of different things. In the public domain is the Fisker EMotion, our higher-end luxury electric vehicle, and the Fisker ORBIT smart shuttle. We’re looking at this autonomous shuttle driving set routes on closed areas in the beginning. We are also working on our solid-state battery technology. It’s about more energy density and getting the price down. They’re safer, and you can charge faster. The fourth is a more affordable high-volume range of electric vehicles.

How does cobalt factor into your company’s supply chain?

Fisker: Cobalt is an important part of pretty much all batteries. Scientists have tried to reduce the amount of cobalt, but we’ll still have some in the batteries for quite a while. Car companies like ours that are going to make electric cars in a high volume want to ensure we can access this important material. We also need to make sure the material for those vehicles is, in this case, mined in the correct way.

Are you sourcing from First Cobalt?

Fisker: We haven’t started making our vehicles yet. It’s about getting in early and understanding our supply lines. First Cobalt owns a very large mineral deposit in Idaho, and they have a refinery in Canada. They are doing exploration of this project because other things were mined in this belt before. It has quite a lot of cobalt. But they haven’t started mining.

We’ve heard automakers describe challenges in the current cobalt supply chain. Is that what you’re seeing?

Fisker: It’s very difficult because cobalt is mined in one place, refined in another, and mixed from different areas. In the end it’s hard to figure out where that cobalt truly came from and how it was mined.

Trent Mell: In the Congo, there’s artisanal mining in the cobalt states. There can be ethical operations that don’t involve children, forced labor, and things of that nature. You get tables or blankets set up in town where people sell their material. It finds its way invariably to a Chinese refiner. But once that gets blended with materials of an unknown origin, the whole batch is tainted.

Our head of exploration worked for First Quantum, so he knows Africa well. He lived in the DRC and Zambia with his family for about two years. As we started the company, we went there. For reasons everybody here knows too well, we got discouraged and decided to focus elsewhere.

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