Tag Archives: cobalt for batteries

The Plight of Electric Cars: Cobalt Batteries and Mining

About 60% of the world’s cobalt is found in Congo, scattered across the copperbelt that stretches east into Zambia. The people of Kawama, Gongo grumble that too much land has been sold to mining firms. “We used to dig freely,” says Gerard Kaumba, a miner. “But now the government has sold all the hills.” There are still some sites where miners can turn up and dig, but they have to sell to whoever owns the concession. A sweltering day’s work might earn you $7. Many people have found they can make more at night, pilfering cobalt from industrial mines.

Glencore, a commodities giant with two mines in Congo, reckons that some 2,000 people sneak into its pits every day. Other companies have even more robbers to contend with. In 2019 Congolese soldiers chased thieves out of a mine owned by China Molybdenum where, it was reckoned, 10,000-odd people were then illegally digging. Sneaking into Glencore’s mines is hardest, says a Kawaman, as its guards do not collude with thieves—and often chase them away with dogs.

Congo’s industrial miners are not all angels.  Gécamines, the state-owned company, has enriched crooked politicians for half a century. Global Witness, a watchdog based in London, says Congo’s treasury lost $750m of mining revenues to graft between 2013 and 2015. ENRC, which has mines in Congo, has faced allegations of corruption and an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (it denies wrongdoing). So has Glencore, which has worked with Dan Gertler, an Israeli billionaire. Mr Gertler, a close friend of a former Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, is under American sanctions… 

While big firms rake in millions, many of the little guys languish in jail. The prison in Kolwezi, the largest city in the mining region, is crammed with men caught stealing copper and cobalt. More than a hundred inmates occupy one stinking room, sitting in rows on the ground, each wedged between another’s legs. Prissoners are allowed to use the toilet only once a day, so they often urinate in their clothes

Excerpt from Cobalt blues: In Congo the little guys are jailed for stealing minerals. Economist, Oct. 17, 2020

Congo, China and Battery Minerals

The demand of cobalt is bound to increase because of the batteries needed to power  electric vehicles (EVs).  Each battery uses about 10kg of cobalt. It is widely known that more than half of the world’s cobalt reserves and production are in one dangerously unstable country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is less well known is that four-fifths of the cobalt sulphates and oxides used to make the all-important cathodes for lithium-ion batteries are refined in China. (Much of the other 20% is processed in Finland, but its raw material, too, comes from a mine in Congo, majority-owned by a Chinese firm, China Molybdenum.)

On March 14t, 2018 concerns about China’s grip on Congo’s cobalt production deepened when GEM, a Chinese battery maker, said it would acquire a third of the cobalt shipped by Glencore, the world’s biggest producer of the metal, between 2018 and 2020—equivalent to almost half of the world’s 110,000-tonne production in 2017. This is likely to add momentum to a rally that has pushed the price of cobalt up from an average of $26,500 a tonne in 2016 to above $90,000 a tonne

South Korean and Japanese tech firms and it’s a big concern of theirs that so much of the world’s cobalt sulphate comes from China. Memories are still fresh of a maritime squabble in 2010, during which China restricted exports of rare-earth metals vital to Japanese tech firms. China produces about 85% of the world’s rare earths.

Few analysts expect the cobalt market to soften soon. Production in Congo is likely to increase in the next few years, but some investment may be deterred by a recent five-fold leap in royalties on cobalt. Investment elsewhere is limited because cobalt is almost always mined alongside copper or nickel. Even at current prices, the quantities needed are not enough to justify production for cobalt alone.

But demand could explode if EVs surge in popularity… the use of cobalt for EVs could jump from 9,000 tonnes in 2017 to 107,000 tonnes in 2026.  The resulting higher prices would eventually unlock new sources of supply. But already non-Chinese battery manufacturers are looking for ways to protect themselves from potential shortages. Their best answer to date is nickel.

The materials most commonly used for cathodes in EV batteries are a combination of nickel, manganese and cobalt known as NMC, and one of nickel, cobalt and aluminium known as NCA. As cobalt has become pricier and scarcer, some battery makers have produced cobalt-lite cathodes by raising the nickel content—to as much as eight times the amount of cobalt. This allows the battery to run longer on a single charge, but makes it harder to manufacture and more prone to burst into flames. The trick is to get the balance right.

Strangely, nickel has not had anything like cobalt’s price rise. Nor do the Chinese appear to covet it… Nickel prices plummeted from $29,000 a tonne in 2011 to below $10,000 a tonne 2017…. But by 2025 McKinsey expects EV-related nickel demand to rise 16-fold to 550,000 tonnes.

In theory, the best way to ensure sufficient supplies of both nickel and cobalt would be for prices to rise enough to make mining them together more profitable. But that would mean more expensive batteries, and thus electric vehicles.

Excerpts from The Scramble for Battery Minerals, Economist, Mar. 24, 2018