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JRC: Europe must take steps to boost supply of cobalt for EV batteries

The coming electric vehicle boom will significantly increase the demand for cobalt in the EU and globally. As a result, demand is expected to exceed supply already in 2020 and the EU must take steps to boost supply and curb demand without hindering the growth in electric vehicles, according to a new JRC (Joint Research Center) report.

Cobalt is necessary for the production of the most common types of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles. While the switch from combustion engines could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it could also create bottlenecks that may stall the process unless they are identified and addressed early on.

As the world’s electric vehicle stock is expected to grow from 3.2 million in 2017 to 130 million in 2030, the overall demand for cobalt could increase threefold within the next decade, outstripping supply already in 2020.

Annual cobalt production in the EU is around 2,300 tonnes, while demand is already about nine times higher. As the gap between supply and demand is expected to increase in the next decade, the EU will continue to depend on imports for the foreseeable future.

Whereas in 2017 65% of the world cobalt mine production (160,000 tonnes) was enough to satisfy the global demand (104,000 tonnes), the latter is expected to skyrocket in the next decade.

The report predicts that, under average conditions, demand will outgrow supply by 64,000 tonnes in 2030.

Cobalt supply chain at risk of concentration disruption. The global supply chain of cobalt is fragile due to extreme concentration. On the one hand, more than half of the worldwide supply (126,000 tonnes) is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the other hand, China produces almost half of the world’s refined cobalt.

According to the JRC report these risks will persist in the future, increasing in the short term but potentially decreasing between 2020 and 2030, when currently ongoing exploration projects could add new suppliers and diversify the market.

Rising prices may impact battery production. Cobalt prices have tripled between 2015 and 2018. A continued trend might seriously impact battery manufacturing, as cobalt accounts for a significant part of production costs.

Substituting cobalt with other metals is technically possible and could reduce demand from electric-vehicle manufacturing by almost 30%.

However, substitution will not be enough to resolve imbalance in the mid-to-long term.

As the EU continues to develop its battery manufacturing capacity, it is crucial to secure adequate cobalt supplies which are obtained sustainably. The report highlights the importance of EU initiatives such as the Raw Materials Initiative pillars and the European Battery Alliance and suggests specific actions which could improve the cobalt market situation in the future, such as:

  • Promoting cobalt extraction and attracting private investment into minerals exploration by improving regulatory conditions;

  • Consolidating trade agreements with countries such as Australia and Canada, whose importance as cobalt producers is expected to grow in the future;

  • Ensuring that used batteries, including those from plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, are collected efficiently in order to boost cobalt recycling;

  • Exploring ways to bring low-cobalt battery chemistries and cobalt-free alternatives to the market; and

  • Monitoring the supply-and-demand situation of metals which could potentially substitute cobalt, such as nickel.

Comments

Engineer-Poet

They forgot the best way to make use of limited cobalt supplies for electrifying transportation:

  • Promote PHEV powertrains before EVs, in order to electrify more VKT with the same amount of raw battery materials.

Lad

Tesla is following the script and shooting for less cobalt in their batteries and elimination completely. I may be wrong but seems I read where cobalt is one of the the elements that makes Lithium Batteries susceptible to combusting.

Engineer-Poet

Tesla does not make PHEVs.  It is doing things the battery-intensive way which is the slow path to petroleum replacement in a resource-limited situation, which is the only situation we'll have for the foreseeable future.

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