The Cobalt Boom

Zambian Business Times - - COMMODITIES -

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.

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