Cobalt is a chemical element with the symbol “Co” and the atomic number 27. Known informally as the “blue” metal, cobalt has a silvery appearance with a bluish tinge, it is lustrous, and highly magnetic. According to the National Library of Medicine, cobalt is an organically occurring element found in soil, water, rocks, plants, and animals. The commodity is used in numerous and often critical industries, such as chemical, industrial, and military applications.
Cobalt was discovered by George Brandy, a Swedish chemist, in 1739. Its major ores are cobaltite and erythrite. The blue metal is usually recovered as a by-product of other elements, including copper, iron, and nickel.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) stated in its January 2020 Mineral Commodity Summaries Report that most of the global cobalt resources are located in Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa), Australia, and Cuba. The USGS presented the known cobalt reserves in the table below:
Congo currently contains around 55% of the world’s cobalt reserves, the other countries each contribute less than 10% of the total. In all cases except the Bou Azzer district (Morocco), cobalt is produced as a by-product of other metals. The proportion of cobalt reserves is expressed in the chart below provided by the USGS:
According to Britannica, in the copper-cobalt bodies of central Africa and Russia, cobalt occurs as:
- Oxide minerals heterogenite
- Carbonate sphaerocobaltite
In the copper-nickel-iron sulphide mines of Australia, Russia, Canada, and other regions, cobalt occurs in the place of nickel in many minerals.
Cobalt arsenides are predominantly mined in Morocco, with other countries producing a significantly reduced amount. They include:
- Arsenate erythrite
These all contribute to cobalt’s list of only primary ores.
How cobalt is mined
The diagram below represents cobalt being mined as a by-product across the world. According to the Cobalt Institute, 98% of cobalt production is mined as a by-product of nickel and copper mining.
Methods of mining cobalt include both underground and surface mining. Large cobalt deposits are also present on the seafloor, although research is currently being conducted to explore the best methods of extraction.
Various nickel and copper ores are treated by both pyrometallurgical and hydro-metallurgical techniques. The vast proportion of cobalt is mined from large scale mines that are controlled by substantially sized mining companies. Large mining companies such as Glencore PLC (LSE: GLEN), China Molybdenum (HKEX: 3993), and Vale (NYSE: VALE) dominate the cobalt mining sector.
Rising prices have also triggered cobalt market growth, particularly in artisanal mines or small-scale miners in the DRC. These are informal cobalt mining activities often carried out using limited technologies by independent miners.
The value of cobalt
Cobalt is not an especially rare commodity. According to statista.com,cobalt ranks 32nd in global abundance among metals, yet innovations in the battery industry have seen overall cobalt demand soar. This rising demand for lithium-ion batteries has made cobalt increasingly more expensive. Statista forecasts that in 2025, the worldwide demand for cobalt use in batteries will amount to 117,000 tonnes, with another 105,000 tonnes needed for other applications.
What is cobalt used for?
Cobalt is predominantly used in the chemical and metal industries. According to the Cobalt Institute, cobalt’s main function in the petroleum and chemical industries is to be used as a catalyst to remove the sulphur from oil.
Cobalt catalysts also help companies reach greenhouse gas emission targets by lowering the activation energy (e.g pressure temperature) needed for industrial processes such as the creation of polyester. The Cobalt Institute also states that the use of cobalt in catalytic applications strengthens the climate change initiatives for the reduction of global greenhouse gases. For example, petrol and diesel for cars can only be sold after being processed with catalysts containing cobalt compounds which reduce sulphur and nitrous oxide emissions.
Cobalt also maintains a principal use in producing alloys with iron, nickel, and other metals. According to the National Library of Medicine, when cobalt is combined with these other metals, it produces Alnico, an alloy with strong magnetic strength. Stellite alloys can also be produced with combinations of cobalt, tungsten, and chromium. Stellite alloys are predominantly used for heavy duty, high-temperature tools.
Mining cobalt for electric car batteries
Cobalt is set to play a key role in the global drive to reduce C02 emissions, thanks to its role as an important component in the production of electric vehicles. The key materials used in the electric vehicle (EV) – cobalt, nickel, copper, graphite, and manganese – are to see an enormous rise in spot price due to skyrocketing battery demand.
S&P forecast a cobalt market boom, with demand expected to double by 2030.This rise will be supported by new EV model launches and increasingly stringent environmental government legislation regarding the automotive sector.
The combination of stringent targets to reduce carbon emissions, the move towards an electric fleet and eventually eliminating fuel-based vehicles is facilitating significant cobalt demand growth. However, the demand for EV batteries has hinted at the prospect of future supply shortages.
Reuters stated in a report, that according to market insights, cobalt demand is forecast to rise to 270,000 tonnes by 2030, from 121,000 in 2020. This forecast is expressed in the key trend below:
Reuters also explained that one of the fundamental issues with supplying cobalt is that it is mined as a by-product of predominantly nickel and copper, making it difficult to invest in as a specific commodity.
The report anticipates EV demand to account for more than 120,000 tonnes by 2025, nearly 45% of the global cobalt market. This is a significant spike when compared with previous demand sitting at nearly 39,000 tonnes (27% of cobalt market supply) in 2020.
Whenever global demand for a commodity booms it always raises the issue of supply capacities and how the worldwide mining community is going to maximize production in order to meet that demand.
Whilst cobalt metal prices remained strong in 2021, S&P Global reported an expected decrease in cobalt prices by 8.3% in 2022, based upon essential supply growth and the easing of supply chain obstacles. S&P stated that global cobalt supply was anticipated to total 196,000Mt in 2022, a drastic increase from an estimated 164Mt in 2021.
During 2019, Glencore halted operations at its Mutanda mine in direct response to cobalt prices plummeting due to increased production in China and chronic oversupply. If total cobalt demand were to see such an unprecedented incline, Glencore could consider reviving production at this mine. Otherwise, other mega-companies such as China Molybdenum seem to be keeping the supply chain balanced.
Cobalt price analysis
According to S&P Global Platts Assessment, since the start of 2021 European cobalt metal prices rose an estimated 88.7% to US$30 per pound, the highest recorded level since December 2018. This was instigated by logistical issues, particularly supply bottlenecks.
Cobalt price history
Previously, cobalt reached an unprecedented high of US$95,250 per million tonnes in March of 2018.
According to Reuters, 2019 saw a drop in cobalt price sparked by rising supplies from the artisanal and industrial sectors in the DRC, and a surplus of cobalt chemicals produced in China.
However, Trading Economics global macro models predictions state that cobalt is anticipated to trade at around US$70,905.60 per million tonnes as of the end of this quarter.
Trading Economics also reported that they estimate cobalt to trade at around US$67723 per million tonnes in a year’s time. This analysis runs parallel to similar ones made by S&P Global, with an expected decrease in cobalt pricing in 2022.
As of March 2021, cobalt stood at US$53,000 per tonne, this was its highest price since December 2018, which was a direct response to the commodity’s crucial space in the EV battery market and the associated limited supply capacities.
According to Reuters, this was a 10-year price high for the cobalt market.
As stated on the S&P website, currently during January 2022, the spot price for cobalt has reached US$70772/Mt.
The graph below shows S&P’s spot price prediction for cobalt. The yellow line is the historical value of the commodity, whilst the red line depicts the future contract. The graph illustrates that despite the price of cobalt decreasing, predominantly due to supply chain bottlenecks being managed more effectively, the drive to a net-zero future will keep cobalt demand steady and pricing steady.
When determining the best course of action to achieve an EV-centric future, the world might decide to adopt a nickel-intensive battery uptake scenario, which poses a significant price risk for cobalt.
Currently, in terms of both pricing and global demand, the cobalt market’s future looks to be a stable one. This is particularly true when considering the battery sector accounting for an estimated 52% of cobalt demand in 2020, which is set to rise to an estimated 72% over the next four years.
If the EV sector continues to boom alongside consistent battery production, industry experts could be right in their forecasted robust growth of cobalt. To stay up to date with the latest developments in the global cobalt industry and market, be sure to check out The Assay’s news centre.