Cobalt producers in race to cover the growing supply gap – report

The risk of cobalt shortfalls could turn into a constraint to EV battery production in the coming years

Sibanye-Stillwater (JSE: SSW), which is repositioning its portfolio towards MIFTs (metals important for future technologies), outlined in its 1H21 results that an increase of “requirements for EV production is already starting to have substantial implications for battery metal supply and is expected to accelerate.”

“The resultant increased demand for battery metals to support a prolonged expansion of the global battery electric vehicle (BEV) fleet over the next two to three decades is going to require commensurate increase in the supply of battery metals. Primary expansion of the scale needed to meet BEV growth […] will be challenging.

“As an alternative source of supply, recycling is therefore likely to become a more significant contributor to battery metal supply as batteries and vehicles start reaching the end of their useful lives in increasing numbers towards the end of the decade and a circular economy is established.”

Cobalt producers in a race to cover the emerging supply gap – BofA report
Cobalt prices have bottomed out, according to BofA. Credit: BofA.

Mine expansions are already happening. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jinchuan Group International is developing the 10,000-tonne Musonoi project, which should start up by 2024.

China Molybdenum is working on two projects, expanding Tenke Fungurume by 17,000 tonnes from 15,000 tonnes. At the same time, the company is also proceeding with the as yet undeveloped Kisanfu site, a project it had initially acquired from Freeport McMoRan.

Reflecting concerns over the supply of battery raw materials, China’s battery manufacturer CATL took a 23.75% stake in Kisanfu four months ago.

Glencore is also restarting the 25,000-tonne Mutanda mine, currently the most prominent site globally.

While Indonesia’s HPAL projects should also deliver more cobalt units in the coming years, ultimately, supply growth starts tailing off from 2024.

Cobalt producers in a race to cover the emerging supply gap – BofA report
Internal combustion engine-vehicle sales are said to have peaked. Credit: BofA.

This raises the risk of cobalt shortfalls turning into a constraint to EV battery production.

So what else can the industry do?

Beyond investing in new operations, BofA says, miners should also address processing technology. Cobalt recovery rates have traditionally been comparatively low since the primary focus was on extracting copper, which opens up two opportunities: production increases by boosting recovery rates and the retreatment of tailings and slag.

Meanwhile, recycling, especially EV batteries, remains in its infancy. Notwithstanding, car manufacturers attribute increased importance to secondary material, with Volkswagen looking to recycle about 97% of all raw materials in the battery packs, from 53% at present.

Cobalt producers in a race to cover the emerging supply gap – BofA report
Cobalt consumption is set to increase steadily in the coming years. Credit: BofA.

A few obstacles need to be overcome to accomplish these recycling targets, the report points out, including inefficient collection infrastructure and lack of steady supply; technological challenges and safety concerns, inefficiencies and a lack of profitability at recycling operations; and low demand for ‘used’ products.

“All of these issues look surmountable, with Sumitomo highlighting recently that the performance of batteries using their recycled material was “was equivalent to that of batteries manufactured using existing raw materials derived from natural resources.”

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