Volvo uses blockchain tech over cobalt ethics supply concerns

Most cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, some by child miners; Volvo’s move aims to address ethics concerns

Volvo is to use blockchain technology to help it trace the provenance of the cobalt used in its electric cars, like the XC40 Recharge.

Cobalt is a vital component for the batteries in electric cars, as well as smartphones and laptops. But with around 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the poorest countries in the world, concerns over unregulated mines and child miners have led Volvo to introduce the provenance-tracking technology.

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Blockchain works by creating a digital ‘ledger’, or database, that can be shared electronically between computers and companies, without being changed. Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, rely on blockchain technology to track payments and keep the currency secure. Blockchain is already used by some diamond companies to ensure blood diamonds, mined in war zones to fund soldiers and mercenaries, do not make their way on to the market. 

Auto Express highlighted concerns over cobalt supply chains at the end of 2018, when we asked all the major players in the EV market where their cobalt came from. No manufacturer was able to guarantee its EV batteries were free from DRC cobalt, though BMW said it planned to stop using Congolese cobalt in the future. Even this solution is not without problems, however, as mines providing vital employment for some DRC residents.

In the case of Volvo’s cobalt, blockchain will be used to log the origin, weight and size of the metal, as well as its “chain of custody” – i.e. in which companies’ hands the material is in, or has passed through. 

With much of the world’s cobalt processed in refineries en mass, even manufacturers who insist on using legitimate mines can find it difficult to guarantee the material has been ethically sourced. By deploying blockchain to cobalt supply chains, however, Volvo will be able to ensure the materials used in its batteries were not dug out of the ground by children in dangerous, unregulated mines.

The Chinese-owned Swedish firm will work with its battery suppliers – CATL of China and LG Chem of South Korea – as well as tech firms Circulor and Oracle – to deploy the blockchain system. 

Martina Buchhauser, head of procurement at Volvo, said the firm has “always been committed to an ethical supply chain for our raw materials”, adding: “With blockchain technology we can take the next step towards ensuring full traceability of our supply chain and minimising any related risks, in close collaboration with our suppliers.”

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