The Cobalt Boom
As technology companies and carmakers become increasingly reliant on cobalt, many business, government, and non-profit leaders have grown concerned about the mineral’s controversial supply chain. Introduction The market for cobalt has exploded in recent years, with demand driven by the surge in production of batteries for electric cars. Its strategic importance will only grow, experts say, as carmakers aggressively scale.
The boom has focused attention on cobalt’s complex and controversial supply chain. In particular, the dominant roles played by both China and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have raised major concerns about ensuring supply of this increasingly valuable commodity. What is cobalt?
Cobalt is a metallic element prized for its strong magnetism, hardness, and resistance to extreme heat and corrosion. The vast majority of it is obtained as a by-product of copper and nickel mining.
In earlier centuries, artisans used cobalt as a base for glass and pigments, the most well-known of which is bright blue. Today, cobalt’s unique qualities make it suitable for use in a range of highly manufactured products, such as batteries, turbine blades, aircraft engines, and medical implants and prosthetics. It is also used in petroleum refinement.
Roughly half of cobalt produced globally today is used in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from electric vehicles to smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. What’s driving the cobalt boom?
The electric vehicle, which requires a large amount of cobalt to produce, is the primary force propelling the cobalt boom. Electric car batteries require between five and fifteen kilograms of the metal, roughly a thousand times the amount in smartphone batteries.
Most global automakers are ramping up production of electrics in response to falling battery costs and aggressive government regulations, particularly in China, the world’s largest and fastest growing car market. Although electric vehicles make up less than 2 percent of auto sales today, analysts say they could account for more than half of new car sales by 2040.
Credit: CFR Editorial. Source: U.S. Geological Survey.
DRC man searching for Cobalt remnants from mining waste.