Lithium-ion Batteries – The Cobalt Cliff Is Upon Us

I had a highly enlightening conversation on Wednesday morning with the staff of Darton Commodities Limited, a U.K.-based metals trading firm that specializes in cobalt products and serves as an intermediary between refined cobalt producers and European cobalt users. A couple days before the call, Darton sent me a copy of their 42 page “2015-2016 Cobalt Market Review.” It was one of the most impressive and data rich industry overviews I’ve ever seen.

Our wide ranging hour and a half conversation confirmed my developing thesis that cobalt is an immense supply chain risk that most lithium-ion battery manufacturers have blithely dismissed in their headlong rush to build manufacturing capacity for markets that may not develop. It left me more convinced than ever that my initial risk assessments were understated. The Cobalt Cliff is upon us and there is no reasonable chance that the battery industry will be able to outbid other essential industries that must have cobalt to make far more valuable products.

While the “Cobalt” page on Darton’s website may be a little out of date, it provides the following brief summaries of the sources and uses of cobalt.

Sources of Cobalt

“Cobalt is not found as a native metal but in nickel-bearing laterites or nickel and copper sulphide deposits. This means that cobalt is usually produced as a by-product of nickel and copper mining activities. Of current production sources, approximately 64% of cobalt production is copper related, 33% is nickel related and only 3% is produced by primary cobalt operations. The main reserves are found in the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an area which currently holds close to half of the world’s cobalt reserves. Australia, Cuba, Zambia, New Caledonia, Canada, Russia, Madagascar and Brazil hold much of the balance of global cobalt reserves. In 2011, global refined cobalt output was estimated at just over 80,000 MT, of which approximately 52% was in chemical form and 48% in metallic form. Approximately 49,000 MT or 61% of this global output was originally mined and (semi) refined in the DRC and of the worlds five largest cobalt refiners four are heavily dependent on DRC sourced refining materials. China’s share in global cobalt production has grown dramatically in recent years, contributing some 33,000 MT or 41% of global refined output in 2011.”

Uses of Cobalt

“Cobalt has a diverse range of important metallurgical and chemical uses which varies from aircraft engines to rechargeable batteries. It is also found in industrial chemical processes where its unique catalytic properties can be used for such applications as desulphurisation of hydrocarbons, the removal of nitrous oxide and the emerging technology of converting natural gas to liquid hydrocarbons. Base industry also utilises the advantages that cobalt can bring to the hard metal industry where hard wearing metals and alloys allow the manufacture of highly effective cutting tools for a broad range of industrial applications. The high temperature resistance, hardness and wear characteristics of cobalt when alloyed with other metals can also be put to good use not only in gas turbines but also as hard surfacing in critical applications where working environments are aggressive. By improving wear and durability this can also improve operating efficiencies by extending the operating life and reducing friction. Furthermore, cobalt’s versatile physical and chemical properties make it a vital ingredient in the colouring of pigments and ceramics, electroplating and the manufacture of vehicle tires, paint driers, permanent magnets, synthetic diamonds and animal feed.”

Supply trends since 2006

According the USGS, cobalt concentrate production soared from 57,500 metric tons (MT) in 2006 to 124,000 MT in 2015. Roughly 62% of that supply growth came from new mines in the DRC which produced 22,000 MT in 2006 and 63,000 MT in 2015. Other major contributors to supply growth during the decade were China (5,800 MT increase), the Philippines (4,600 MT increase) and Madagascar (3,600 MT increase).

Demand trends since 2006

Just as the DRC has been the primary driver of cobalt supply over the last decade, the battery industry has been the primary driver of cobalt demand. According to CDI and Darton, battery industry demand for cobalt soared from 12,300 MT in 2006 to 44,600 MT in 2015, a compound annual growth rate of roughly 16%. Other industrial uses of cobalt remained remarkably stable throughout the period ranging from a low of 42,600 MT in 2009 to a high of 52,500 MT in 2011. In 2015, non-battery demand was 45,600 MT.

Synergistic Historical Relationship

Over the last decade there has been a remarkable synergy between increasing cobalt supply and increasing battery industry demand. The supply increase was driven by new copper and nickel mines that were brought into production to satisfy soaring demand for their primary metals, principally from users in China. If the battery industry had not been ready, willing and able to absorb the increased cobalt production, the price for cobalt would have plummeted because non-battery industrial uses for cobalt are remarkably stable. Since supply and demand were basically increasing on parallel tracks for the last decade, the market price of cobalt remained stable except for a brief but substantial (~300%) spike in late 2007 and early 2008.

The Symbiosis Is Over

Since 2006, nickel and copper prices have been extremely volatile because miners expanded production too rapidly and Chinese demand growth faltered. After peaking at $24 a pound in 2007, nickel began a multi-year slide to its current level of $3.75 a pound. While copper didn’t peak until 2010, the price slide from $4.50 to $2.15 a pound has put immense pressure on profits.

Infomine_Ni-Cu

According to Darton, about 70% of nickel miners and a substantial percentage of copper miners are losing money at today’s prices and managers are grappling with increasing pressure to take mines out of production and put them into care and maintenance mode until metal demand and prices recover.

In 2015, global cobalt production was 92,900 MT. Based on mine closings that have already occurred, Darton expects 2016 cobalt production to fall by 5,900 to 10,400 MT. It also cautions that Glencore has discussed a temporary closure of Minera Resources (2,900 MT per year); Queensland Nickel (1,900 MT per year) recently went into voluntary administration and could be closed within a couple months; and several other large miners are weighing their loss reduction options. Therefore, the production declines from mine closures could be much greater.

Darton also reports that the Chinese State Reserve Bank has bought and stockpiled about 5,000 metric tons of cobalt this year.

Sizing the 2016 Shortage

Based on historic trends, it seems reasonable to expect that non-battery cobalt demand will equal or exceed 2015 levels of 45,600 MT. It also seems reasonable to assume that battery industry demand will climb into the 52,000 MT range, a 16% increase over 2015 demand of 44,600 MT. Without accounting for any future stockpiling by the Chinese State Reserve Bank, a total cobalt demand of 102,600 MT is already baked into the cake for 2016.

On the supply side Darton has identified 5,900 to 10,500 metric tons of production declines from mines that have already closed; 4,800 MT of production declines from mines that could be closed in the next couple months. Moreover, its 2015-2016 Cobalt Market Review cautions,With miners facing the worst commodity rout in decades, further production cuts can be expected during 2016.” In combination, these factors point to 2016 cobalt production that won’t exceed 86,900 MT and could fall as low as 77,400 MT. Those figures represent, 85% and 75% respectively of anticipated cobalt demand for the year.

A 15% to 25% supply and demand imbalance in a market like cobalt is immense, particularly when half of global supplies are used in essential industries that simply can’t do without the metal. Under the circumstances, I think the substantial bulk of the cobalt production shortfall will come from battery industry’s hide, fat, muscle and bone.

This is not a someday challenge. It’s a here, now and in your face challenge.

Déjà vu All Over Again

I’ve been an amused observer of lithium-ion battery supply chain issues since 2011 when Roland Berger Strategy Consultants released a presentation titled “Powertrain 2020; The Li-ion Battery Value Chain – Trends and implications,” which included this graph that looked forward to 2015 and compared planned lithium-ion cell manufacturing capacity additions with planned cathode, anode, separator and electrolyte capacity additions.

battery_demand

In November 2011, I wrote an article titled, “Electric Vehicles; Ineptitude, apathy … and piles of taxpayer money” that said, “Since it’s impossible to manufacture cells without anodes, cathodes, separators and electrolytes, I have to wonder about the management teams that are building cell manufacturing facilities without first ensuring the integrity of their supply chains. The apparent lack of concern over supply chain issues is staggering. I can’t decide whether it’s reckless apathy or simply a childlike faith that the taxpayers, like doting first-time grandparents, are breathlessly waiting for any opportunity to provide whatever the golden child needs or wants.”

My neighbors in Switzerland were were fond of saying “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose;” the more things change, the more they stay the same.

When it comes to the lithium-ion battery industry and the Cobalt Cliff, all I can say is amen.

Yogi Berra said it best, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

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