Cobalt may be a minor constituent of lithium ion batteries, but it is a crucial one.

Need buying strategies for steel? Try two free months of MetalMiner’s Outlook

Lithium has been the metal in the news this year. Bolstered by rising demand for hybrid and electric cars, however, the supply market has been struggling to keep up with demand.

Not that the world is short of lithium, as we wrote recently — it is widely distributed and relatively abundant. But projects time to ramp up, and while many are on the planning board, not all reach production maturity.

Cobalt, on the other hand, is a much more constrained market — not just constrained, but the vast majority is from politically unstable sources.

According to Reuters, two-thirds of global cobalt comes from just one politically very unstable country – the inappropriately named Democratic Republic of Congo, with some 80,790 tons of the metal sourced from there last year out of a total market of about 119,710 tons.

Worse, the DRC is sliding back into yet another potentially bloody civil war.

Joseph Kabila was elected for a final five-year term in 2011 on a mandate that ran out in 2016, but he clings on even though no more than 10% of Congolese support him, according to the Economist. Ten of 26 provinces are suffering armed conflict, the Economist reports, with dozens of militias once again on the warpath.

Some 2 million Congolese fled their homes last year, bringing the total still displaced to around 4.3 million out of a total population of nearly 80 million. The state is tottering and the president is illegitimate, the Economist says. Ethnic militias are proliferating and one of the world’s richest supplies of minerals is available to loot.

Source: London Metal Exchange

So the rise in the price of cobalt — while it mirrors that of lithium and has so far been driven largely by battery and super alloy demand — is fragile to political unrest in a way that lithium is not.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2018 buying strategies for carbon steel

Of the two, cobalt represents a bigger supply risk and may yet prove the cause of considerable volatility if the DRC’s neighbors cannot get their act together and seek a solution in the most resource-blessed but politically cursed of African nations.

stockquest/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals, the president tweets about steel and aluminum (current Section 232 probes under his consideration), Apple’s move on cobalt and China plans to crack down on aluminum price speculation.

Section 232 buying strategies – download MetalMiner’s Section 232 Investigation Impact Report today!

Trump Tweets About Steel, Aluminum; Announcement Possibly Coming Today

According to the Washington Post, during a planned announcement today the president could announce plans for steel and aluminum trade action.

This morning, the president tweeted on the subject, writing:

According to the Washington Post report, there is a chance the announcement might still be postponed.

Apple and Cobalt

Last week, Apple announced it would be seeking to buy cobalt — coveted for its application in things like electric car batteries and cellphones, among other things — directly from miners, as Bloomberg reported.

According to the report, Apple is looking to buy several thousand metrics tons of cobalt for five years or more.

China Targets Excessive Nonferrous Metals Speculation

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology MIIT is looking to crack down on excessive speculation in nonferrous metals, like aluminum, according to a Reuters report.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2018 buying strategies for carbon steel

According to the report, the MIIT plans to work nonferrous metals associations and other departments to tamp down speculation.

AdobeStock/Stephen Coburn

Before we head into the weekend, let’s take a look back at the week that was.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

Chris Titze Imaging/Adobe Stock

Industrial metals are in the grips of a bear market, various outlets report, and one of the main narratives sounds like a case of the market having its cake and eating it too.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

The FT reports that the oil price, as referenced by the Brent crude quotation, has topped $60 a barrel for the first time in two years.

The article quotes various sources suggesting that while demand is strong, the rise in prices is driven more by supply constraints than by a sudden surge in demand (which caused the China-inspired super-cycle in the last decade). This time, a combination of reduced investment in new capacity (resulting from low prices in recent years) and the OPEC-led production constraints initiated in November 2016 are gradually tightening the market. Trader Trafigura is quoted as predicting demand will outstrip supply by as much as 4 million barrels a day by the end of the decade as supply becomes under better control and the U.S. shale industry fails to make up the delta between supply and gradually rising demand.

That’s where the have the cake and eat it too part comes in.

At the same time, industrial metals are rising strongly. Copper passed $7,000 per ton last month and aluminum is knocking on the door of $2,200 per ton. The cobalt price has doubled in the last 18 months and nickel, long in the doldrums due to over-supply and poor demand from the stainless sector, has also been on the rise due to projected battery demand from electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.

On the face of it, this appears like investors are picking and choosing their good news. If electric vehicles are such a strong bet that metals demand is set to soar, then surely oil demand is set to collapse. That prospect should undermine the oil price, you may reasonably suggest.

If only it were that simple.

Even a doubling of battery production would suggest an extra 750,000 vehicles based on 2016 global electric vehicle and hybrid production of 773,600 units, according to EV-volumes.

There was modest, by global light vehicle sales, of 90 million units in 2016, just 0.86%. Yet for cobalt, it’s still significant when you consider the battery industry currently uses 42% of global cobalt production, so an ongoing rise of 42% increase in lithium ion battery demand (2016 over 2015) would be highly disruptive to cobalt demand.

Plug-in vehicle sales grew 20 times faster than the overall market, justifiably causing concern that cobalt supply could be strained by this one market application.

Worryingly for cobalt, the fastest-growing market is also the largest.

Driven by government subsidies, the Chinese market, at some 351,000 units last year, also grew at 84% over 2015. The switch to EV and PHEV cars is part of Beijing’s drive against pollution, so incentives are not likely to be relaxed anytime soon. Growth of this magnitude dwarfs the 13% and 36% growth rates in Europe and the U.S., respectively.

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

No wonder cobalt prices have doubled and yet oil prices have virtually ignored the message the rise in EV sales is telling us. One is major disruption to a small, constrained and geographically, supply market, while the other is a long-term trend to a still growing vast supply and demand market that will take years to impact consumption figures.

stockquest/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals news, August was a huge month for aluminum, zinc, and nickel; copper hit a three-year high on Thursday; and a South Korean company announced it will produce lithium-ion batteries with a greater percentage of nickel than before.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

An Anything But Dreary Month

August is typically a quiet month for many, as people take vacations before the end of the summer.

It was not a quiet month for metals, though.

In August, aluminum, zinc and nickel all posted significant price increases (10%, 12% and 15%, respectively).

Copper Hits Three-Year High

Copper kept rolling Thursday, hitting a peak not seen since 2014.

The metal thus closes a strong August  — during which its price rose 7.5% — on a record note.

From Cobalt to Nickel

As automakers look to meet growing demand for electric vehicles, some battery makers are turning to more nickel and less cobalt in the construction of lithium-ion batteries.

For South Korean company SK Innovation, that means using more nickel. The company announced Thursday that it has begun commercial production of batteries using an increased portion of nickel (as opposed to the expensive, and scarce, cobalt).

“The batteries will help extend a driving range of electric vehicles up to 500 kms, and we will also develop new batteries by 2020 that can provide a range of more than 700 kms,” Lee Jon-ha, principal researcher of the company’s battery R&D center, said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Free Download: The August 2017 MMI Report

The Renewables MMI jumped 6.9% to 77 for our August reading, as prices jumped for nearly every metal in the renewables basket sub-index.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Of eight metals listed in this sub-index, seven posted price jumps last month. Steel plate from Japan, Korea, China and the U.S. jumped up, as did Chinese neodymium, silicon and cobalt.

The lone metal to fall this past month was U.S. grain-oriented electrical steel (GOES) coil, which fell  2.8%.

It was a much stronger July for this basket of metals than June was, when only four of the seven metals moved up in price (Chinese steel plate, neodymium, cobalt cathodes and silicon).

Cobalt Prices Have Asian Battery Makers Looking Elsewhere

As mentioned earlier this week, Reuters reported rising cobalt prices have forced battery makers in Asia to consider alternatives — namely, nickel.

According to the report, makers of lithium-ion batteries are looking to add more nickel to their battery formulas instead of the increasingly costly cobalt.

As the report notes, electric vehicle demand is set to grow significantly in the coming years. As such, automakers will be looking to cut their production costs. According to Reuters, the price of cobalt has doubled over the last year, a product of high demand and supply shortage.

Political Instability, Violence in Congo

Speaking of supply, most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). According to USGS data, an estimated 66,000 metric tons of cobalt were mined in Congo in 2016 — or 54% of the 123,000 metric tons mined worldwide. China came in second last year of cobalt mined (7,700 metric tons), followed by Canada (7,300 metric tons).

However, the unstable political situation in Congo could continue to affect supply, making the metal even pricier. Political unrest recently led to a wave of bloodshed in the country, sparking fear of a return to the civil wars of the 1990s, The Guardian reported.

This is all without even getting to the ethical concerns present in the Congolese cobalt mining world. As noted by numerous media reports, significant chunks of mining revenue tend to go missing via corruption linked to President Joseph Kabila. All in all, the rising demand in cobalt has not benefited the Congolese people. A 2015 IMF report showed the country was experiencing significant economic growth, but poverty reduction lagged behind.

On top of all this, the conditions for Congolese cobalt miners add another ethical concern to the mix, one which big multinational brands will have to answer to with respect to their supply chains. For example, a Sky News report revealed workers as young as 4 working in the Congolese cobalt mines in deplorable conditions.

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

While the status of cobalt on the marketplace is obviously not the most important takeaway from the grim situation in the DRC, cobalt production has fallen this year amid the unrest, The Guardian reported, leading to a 90% rise in the price of the metal and a peak of $61,000/ton in July.

Actual Metal Prices and Trends

For full access to this MetalMiner membership content:
Log In |

Windsor/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals news, some think copper’s hot 2017 could run out of steam, copper stabilized after hitting a two-year peak recently and Asian battery makers are looking to use more nickel instead of cobalt.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Copper Outlook for Second Half of 2017

It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether or not copper can continue its robust run throughout the remainder of the calendar year.

The metal recently hit its two-year peak. Some, however, think the metal is due to fall off its current pace.

According to a report in Barron’s, there are numerous red flags indicating copper could reverse course — with a particular focus on China.

“Analysts believe regulatory tightening will soon weigh on growth, cooling demand for copper and other industrial metals in the months ahead,” writes Ira Iosebasvili. 

If the Chinese economy hits a period of slower growth — as many in recent months have warned will happen — then the copper market will certainly be affected.

For Now, Copper Holds Steady

Although many analysts are predicting a course correction for the metal throughout the rest of the year, copper is holding steady.

A rally in Chinese steel and iron ore prices painted a positive positive in China, the world’s largest metals consumer, Reuters reported.

Trading in Cobalt for Nickel?

For makers of batteries in Asia, cobalt is getting a little pricey — so much so that some battery makers are turning to even more nickel.

A rise in cobalt prices has inspired battery makers in Asia to adjust their battery ingredient formula, according to a report from Reuters.

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

Cobalt prices have shot up over the last year on high demand and supply disruptions, Reuters reports. In fact, Reuters reports the price of cobalt rose to six times that of nickel in July.

Cobalt and lithium have big roles in the burgeoning electric-vehicle market, but they’re still subject to price volatility. scharfsinn86/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals news, demand for cobalt and lithium will only grow with the electric car industry, but price ups and downs are likely in the offing, too; London copper took a dip after the U.S. Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike announcement Wednesday; and the U.S. coal industry, in a world with less demand for coal as an energy product, might have to get creative. One writer suggests mining for coal — not for coal itself, but for rare-earth metals contained within it.

Cobalt, lithium markets growing with EVs, but could see fluctuation

One thing is certain: the electric-car industry is growing rapidly.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

According to a Reuters story Thursday by Andy Home, the number of electric cars on roads worldwide doubled last year to 2 million — but only accounted for 0.2% of the global total. However, estimates indicate that number will grow to 3% as soon as 2021 and 14% in 2025.

With that growth comes a need for certain kinds of metals, like cobalt and lithium.

But with a still relatively young electric-vehicle industry, what will demand for these metals look like in the near future?

Cobalt and lithium, for example, are on the “front-line” of the “green transport revolution, Home writes. But that means, to an extent, being subject to the whims of an industry in its early stages.

Large price hikes in lithium late last year and early this year have leveled off. Home added there could be further price volatility, as producers, analysts and traders try to construct consensus demand models.

Copper falls to one-week low

Copper on the London Metal Exchange (LME) dropped to a one-week low Thursday, on the heels of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision to hike interest rates for the second time this year, Reuters reported.

Copper fell to $5,462 per ton, according to the report.

Financial uncertainty in the U.S. and a slowing of the Chinese economy will put selling pressure on metals, according to a Kingdom Futures report quoted by Reuters.

Coal industry mining for … rare earths

Global coal production has declined each of the last three years. With a decline in demand, coal-mining operations have to adapt to a world increasingly powered by green energy.

The solution for some might be mining for coal, not for coal’s energy-producing properties, but for the rare-earth metals found within them, according to an article Thursday in Quartz. Per the article, China currently produces 90% of the world’s rare-earth metals.

It’s an interesting idea, even if author Akshat Rathi writes that his three ideas for extraction of rare-earth metals from coal are currently not economically feasible.

Free Download: The June 2017 MMI Report

But, as mentioned in yesterday’s This Morning in Metals post, producers have to adapt with the times. Whether we’re talking about copper producers looking for new markets for their copper or coal-mining operations mining for rare-earth metals found within coal, producers have to adjust or risk being left behind.

Ford Motor Company has bet the farm on electric and driverless cars, to borrow a phrase from an article this week.

The appointment of Ford’s new boss, Jim Hackett — who previously headed Ford’s Smart Mobility subsidiary from March 2016 but prior to that, was boss of Steelcase, a business furniture company — illustrates more graphically than words that Ford has read the runes for the internal combustion engine and the current automotive business model, and decided it needs a radical shake-up in its thinking and approach.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

A rethink of where the industry is going over the next 10 years has prompted not just the hiring of this talented outsider, but also, earlier this year, Ford’s $1 billion investment in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company that, it is hoped, will produce the software needed for a new generation of self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars, though, are dependent not just on developing new technologies but a host of legal, insurance policy and regulatory changes that will take time to evolve.

Read more

Investors are running up cobalt prices as automakers and suppliers stock up on the raw material for lithium-ion batteries as they prepare for an increase in electric vehicle production.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Reuters reported that Shanghai Chaos Investments and Switzerland-based Pala Investments as two of the companies that invested heavily in cobalt last year, although the amount they’ve stockpiled is unknown.

On Dec. 1, cobalt was just around $30,000 per metric ton on the London Metal Exchange. As of Monday, one mt of cobalt was trading around $49,000. That’s an increase of 63% in three months.

Report: Trump Will Scrap EPA Clean Power Plan Next Week

President Trump is expected to issue orders next week that will begin the process of striking the Clean Power Plan and ending a moratorium on new coal mining on federal lands.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

The plan was largely opposed by manufacturers and metals producers. Its end will most likely bring a sigh of relief from utilities with coal-dominated generation mixes, as well, since they won’t have to alter their generation mixes within any deadlines.