In Poems

Niall Ward-O’Brien

The first metal discovered by modern science was cobalt, in 1735
But its history runs much earlier, from China to Rome to Egypt
It is not hard to imagine the wonder of our ancestors when they first saw its vivid blue,
Staining glass or pottery.

Cobalt means ‘goblin’ in the tongue of German miners,
Maybe for its habit of ruining their silver,
Or for belching arsenic fumes when smelted,
The goblin waited beneath the earth in cattierite or glaucodot, in Saxony and Buskerud,
To be sintered with alumina or quartz, to make Cobalt Blue or smalt
Now, though, the goblin is all around us – in magnets, batteries, hip replacements
Now, we need more.

Now, beneath the Congolese hills, child miners delve deep, or cut trenches
Or dredge the mineral slurry,
For precious grains of his ore, to feed our ever-growing hunger.

Tech firms say they are responsible purchasers:
Apple is the ‘industry leader’
Microsoft ‘doesn’t tolerate child labour’
Samsung is ‘mapping their supply chain’
But in the markets of the DRC, one sack of ore looks much like another
And their middlemen are not paid to be discerning.

Humans have always desired the goblin’s powers:
His blue pigments for our porcelain and glass,
To make gamma rays or for electroplating;
He powers our electric cars, he hardens our turbine blades
He gives us our cheap plastic bottles and strips sulfur from our fuel
But for these services he has always asked a price.

As we drive towards a green future – of electric cars and cheap smartphones, powered by lithium-cobalt batteries
We should consider – who will pay the goblin’s fee?


About the Author

I’m Niall and I’m a PhD student in Tony Ryan’s research group. I’m working on improving alcohol-based foams for hand hygiene by studying the behaviour of soap films. In my spare time I play the saxophone, climb and write about music on the Internet.