While elements such as nickel, lithium and manganese have
important roles to play in various popular battery chemistries,
cobalt is the critical mineral concerning many industry
The reason for this is the nature of its source, with over
50% of the world’s supply mined in
conflict-stricken Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
With rechargeable battery electrodes being the primary use
for cobalt, recent instability in the DRC has been
Last week there were several reports of violent outbreaks
and on Friday the border crossing between DRC and
Zambia was closed for 24 hours by the Zambians to prevent
trouble spilling over into the country.
To add to the already concerning story, Mo Ke, chief analyst
at RealLi Research, said at the 2016 Argus Battery Metals
Conference last week in Beijing that there would "probably be a
shortage next year", thanks to a combination of increasing
demand and restricted supply. Some commentators, such as Ian
Pringle, managing director of Bayrock Materials and Pacific
Basin Bluestone, thinks that this is an understatement.
Reuters reported in mid-2016 that cobalt
prices would likely rise around 45% by 2020 as stricter
emissions controls push global demand for electric vehicles
(EVs), the news agency calling it "a stampede for cobalt".
| World cobalt supply by
country (Source: USGS)
China’s green growth driving
China, the world’s biggest polluter, is also
trying to establish a market for new energy vehicles with
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information
Technology (CMIIT) decreeing that by 2020 there shall be 5m
accumulated New Energy Vehicles or NEVs in China. However,
according to Yuan Gao, CEO of Pulead Technology Industry Co.
Ltd, insiders are expecting more than that with the current
rate of NEV production.
The term NEV is a something used in China to refer to any
vehicle that can plug into an outlet. This means pure EVs and
plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are included in this
category, while some hybrids, like Toyota’s Prius,
As if this wasn’t already a large enough
market, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has been quoted as saying that
stationary storage is "something I think will probably be as
big as the car business long term".
|China is leading the charge
with EVs and electric buses (Wikimedia)
Need for cobalt in battery chemistry
At the conference, Gao detailed the role of each metal
element in the popular Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt (NMC) battery
Speaking broadly, Gao said that NMC batteries use a larger
amount of nickel than any other mineral, and as more of this
material is used, the proportion of cobalt and manganese (or
aluminium in NCA chemistries) decreases.
In terms of its function, cobalt provides the battery with
a good cycle ability, thanks to the tight molecular compound
structure it provides in the cathode.
Gao said that while nickel already has a high percentage
use, it is gaining in popularity due to its availability and
low price. Goa added that another reason that cathode
producers are moving towards using more nickel, is that "we
are not assured we have enough cobalt".
There is also a common belief that the more nickel used in
a cathode, the more energy dense the battery will be. This is
not true however, because as nickel is added, overall voltage
is decreased and with it power. To counteract this, cobalt
must be used. In addition, increasing the proportion of
nickel leaves the battery less thermally stable, a property
that may be counterbalanced by manganese, a mineral that has
no exothermic tendency.
Despite some researchers attempting to find a NMC battery
with zero cobalt composition, Gao estimates that at least 10%
cobalt must be used in battery cathode chemistry at all times
due to safety and battery longevity reasons.
Many batteries today are using what is termed "333"
composition, or one third nickel, one third cobalt and one
third manganese. Currently the industry is trying to optimise
safety, power, performance and price by moving towards more
nickel-heavy compositions like 523, 622, and 811, with the
first digit representing nickel, second cobalt, and third as
According to the CDI, there is now a greater-than-ever
possibility of developing mines with cobalt as a primary
metal (or even a pure play), which could take dependency away
from the DRC.
With 94% of cobalt mined as a byproduct of nickel and
copper, and 80% of China’s copper being sourced
from the DRC’s copper operations, companies like
Broken Hill Prospecting (BPL) are stepping up to the
The company, through its subsidiary Cobalt Blue Holdings,
owns two cobalt deposits within two granted mining leases
(ML66 and ML67) in New South Wales, Australia, known as the
Thackaringa Cobalt project.
In its latest annual report, the company said that "the
Thackaringa Cobalt project remains at the forefront of
investor interest" and "is considered to host one of the
world’s largest undeveloped cobalt
The company is planning to undertake metallurgical and
resource expansion drilling in the latter quarter of 2016,
with a scoping study forecast to commence shortly after and
results expected early 2017.
A major supply source for cobalt mined as a primary
mineral would be welcomed by the industry. While commentators
like Ke and Gao are focused on the demand side of the
equation, others such as John Petersen, US battery technology
commentator, are forecasting a decrease in the supply side as
Petersen says that nickel mining will be reduced due to
falling nickel prices, leading to a reduction of 15% in the
global cobalt supply, while pressure is mounting on companies
like Apple to find sustainable and ethical sources of cobalt
for their consumer electronics.
For more information on the raw materials used in the
lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery industry see
Battery Price Report.