By Greg Klein
“If there’s any nation that contributes over 50% of supply for a mineral, alarm bells start to go off.” That’s especially true when the country is as troubled as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst Caspar Rawles told a Vancouver conference on April 21. Social and political instability combined with child labour concerns intensify what he calls the “cobalt conundrum,” in which battery manufacturers have no choice but to increase their reliance on DRC resources. That’s his forecast, even as he acknowledges demand for new sources from elsewhere.
The DRC easily dominates global cobalt, with 64% of mined supply according to the most recent Benchmark figures. No more reassuring, China dominates refined supply with 57%. Without significant cobalt reserves of its own, the country holds a prominent position in DRC mining, where the energy ingredient results as a byproduct of copper extraction.
That position expanded this year with the Freeport-McMoRan NYSE:FCX/Lundin Mining TSX:LUN sale of their DRC Tenke Fungurume copper-cobalt mine to China Molybdenum and a Chinese private equity firm. An anticipated and equally geopolitically feckless follow-up would be the American/Canadian JV’s sale of its Finnish cobalt refinery to the same people. By processing Fungurume ore, the facility provides about 10% of the world’s refined supply, Rawles says.
For all the disturbing news coming out of the Congo, “there will be no lithium-ion battery industry without DRC cobalt,” Rawles maintains. “We expect cobalt supply from the DRC to become more dominant in the market, and that’s because of where the large projects are, plus-10,000 tonnes a year.”
Yet by no means is Congo cobalt necessarily conflict cobalt, even when artisanal supply is considered. Some artisanal operations are perfectly legal, he says, while media-reported numbers can be “inflated.”
Tackling the issue presents difficulties, Rawles says. Companies often mine a small part of huge concessions, with no power to prevent the desperately poor from working other parts of the claims. The only people with any such power in the DRC “are the mining police and they just confiscate the material, they don’t take away the problem. It’s a longstanding problem and it’s going to take time to resolve.”
Not surprisingly, “substitution is definitely something that cathode companies are working on,” he points out. Not all cathodes require cobalt, unlike lithium. Even so, he sees about 81% of the market continuing to use cobalt cathodes.
As the Li-ion battery market grows from 70 GWh last year to Benchmark’s estimated 170 GWh in 2020, “cobalt demand will be high but won’t surpass supply.” Beyond 2020, Rawles predicts a deficit growing to 2023, then ending around 2024 or 2025.
“The only thing that can accelerate a reduction in cobalt is supply disruption,” he adds. Critics of DRC President Joseph Kabila attribute the country’s delayed elections to his determination to retain power after 16 years in office. Protests have resulted in scores of fatalities, raising fears of even wider civil unrest.
Another possible impact on supply/demand forecasts could come “if EVs take off even more quickly than we expect.”
The DRC hosts the world’s two big near-term copper-cobalt operations, Glencore’s majority-held Katanga mine and Eurasian Resources Group’s Metalkol Roan Tailings Reclamation project. Rawles expects Katanga to resume production early next year after its 2015 suspension. While the project’s technical report sets annual cobalt capacity at 30,000 tonnes, he expects the early years will probably realize half of that.
RTR’s slated for 2019 startup, Rawles says. ERG targets an initial 14,000 tonnes of cobalt annually, increasing to 20,000 tonnes over the next three to five years.
So despite “a number of other, smaller projects in the pipeline,” DRC dominance will prevail. Still, Rawles does see opportunity for other sources of cobalt. But new suppliers will have to follow a “value-added strategy,” he argues. They must produce a cobalt chemical that meets a manufacturer’s precise requirements. And the suppliers need to do that without refining their product in China, where it might be blended with conflict supply.
“That’s how they can brand themselves,” he says. “There’s going to be demand for that. Certainly the large supply is going to come from the DRC and if you’re really serious about EVs, that’s where the cobalt’s going to come from. It’s not going to happen without that.”
But, he emphasizes, “there will be demand from certain companies that don’t want to touch DRC cobalt.”