Blockchain pilot launched to boost cobalt transparency

18 January 2019

Ford is piloting the use of blockchain to trace cobalt from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to a car plant in the US.

Ford and IBM have partnered to set up a blockchain platform to track the mineral, used to build batteries, to provide transparency on human rights and environmental standards within the cobalt supply chain.

The pilot will see an immutable audit trail created, tracing cobalt from mine and smelter in the DRC, through a cathode plant and battery plant in South Korea, before it is delivered to a Ford plant in the US. The journey is expected to span over five months.

As a key component in rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries, cobalt is in high demand. Demand is expected to increase eightfold by 2026, due to a rise in electric cars and consumer devices. Last year, Ford announced that it plans to launch 16 fully-electric vehicles by 2022. The typical electric car battery requires 20lbs of cobalt and a standard laptop requires 1oz. 

However, reports have exposed serious human rights issues within cobalt mining. While more than 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the DRC, a fifth of this is mined by artisanal miners in the country. Amnesty International has said that children and adults are often operating outside authorised mining zones, mining for cobalt by hand but lacking basic protective and safety equipment such as gloves or respirators.

Lisa Drake, vice president of global purchasing and powertrain operations at Ford, said the pilot demonstrates the company’s commitment to supply chain transparency.

"By collaborating with other leading industries in this network, our intent is to use state-of-the-art technology to ensure materials produced for our vehicles will help meet our commitment to protecting human rights and the environment," she said.

Manish Chawla, general manager of global industrial products industry at IBM, said the pilot illustrates how blockchain can be used for greater assurance around social responsibility in the supply chain as the demand for cobalt grows.

He added: "The initial work will be used as a precedent for the rest of the industry to be further extended to help ensure transparency around the minerals going into our consumer goods."

The pilot, involving Ford, IBM, Huayou Cobalt, LG Chem and RCS Global, is expected to extend beyond cobalt to include other battery metals and raw materials, including minerals such as tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold.

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