A study by a team from MIT, with colleagues from Alfred University, UC Berkeley, and RIT, has found that supplies of cobalt—a critical material in some battery chemistries—is adequate in the short-term (up to 2030), but that the industry needs to invest in additional efficient refining and recycling capacity, so it can continue to meet demand. The paper is published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Roughly 60% of mined cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The element is often recovered as a byproduct from mining copper and nickel, meaning that demand and pricing for those other metals affects the availability of cobalt. Half of the current supply of cobalt is incorporated into cathodes for lithium-ion batteries, and many of those batteries are used in consumer electronics and electric vehicles.
Demand for these vehicles and their batteries is growing swiftly: In 2018, the global electric car fleet numbered in excess of 5.1 million, up 2 million from the prior year, according to the International Energy Agency.
To determine potential cobalt supply and demand through 2030, the researchers analyzed variables, including electric vehicle demand; cobalt mining, refining and recycling capacity; battery chemistry trends; socioeconomic and political trends; and the feasibility of substituting other materials for cobalt. These variables could be affected by political instability in DRC, policy decisions favoring electric vehicles, disruptions in China (which refines around half of the cobalt supply), and fluctuations in copper and nickel prices.
They found that cobalt demand is estimated to range from 235 to 430 ktonnes in 2030. This upper bound on cobalt demand corresponds to 280% of world refinery capacity in 2016.
They estimated supply from scheduled and unscheduled production as well as secondary production to range from 320 to 460 ktonnes. Their analysis suggests:
The price of cobalt will remain relatively stable in the short term, given that the range suggests even a supply surplus;
Future cobalt supply will become more diversified geographically and mined more as a byproduct of nickel (Ni) over this period; and
For future demand to be met, attention should be paid to sustained investments in refined supply of cobalt and secondary recovery.
The authors received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory under the US Department of Energy.
Xinkai Fu, Danielle N. Beatty, Gabrielle G. Gaustad, Gerbrand Ceder, Richard Roth, Randolph E. Kirchain, Michele Bustamante, Callie Babbitt, and Elsa A. Olivetti (2020) “Perspectives on Cobalt Supply through 2030 in the Face of Changing Demand” Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b04975