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Cobalt: A Precarious Supply Chain

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Cobalt: A Precarious Supply Chain

Cobalt: A Precarious Supply Chain

How does your mobile phone last for 12 hours on just one charge?

It’s the power of cobalt, along with several other energy metals, that keeps your lithium-ion battery running.

The only problem? Getting the metal from the source to your electronics is not an easy feat, and this makes for an extremely precarious supply chain for manufacturers.

Our infographic today comes to us from LiCo Energy Metals, and it focuses on where this important ingredient of green technology originates from, and the supply risks associated with its main sources.

What is Cobalt?

Cobalt is a transition metal found between iron and nickel on the periodic table. It has a high melting point (1493°C) and retains its strength to a high temperature.

Similar to iron or nickel, cobalt is ferromagnetic. It can retain its magnetic properties to 1100°C, a higher temperature than any other material. Ferromagnetism is the strongest type of magneticism: it’s the only one that typically creates forces strong enough to be felt, and is responsible for the magnets encountered in everyday life.

These unique properties make the metal perfect for two specialized high-tech purposes: superalloys and battery cathodes.

Superalloys

High-performance alloys drive 18% of cobalt demand. The metal’s ability to withstand intense temperatures and conditions makes it perfect for use in:

  • Turbine blades
  • Jet engines
  • Gas turbines
  • Prosthetics
  • Permanent magnets

Lithium-ion Batteries:

Batteries drives 49% of demand – and most of this comes from cobalt’s usage in lithium-ion battery cathodes:

Type of lithium-ion cathodeCobalt in cathodeSpec. energy (Wh/kg)
LFP0%120
LMO0%140
NMC15%200
LCO55%200
NCA10%245

The three most powerful cathode formulations for li-ion batteries all need cobalt. As a result, the metal is indispensable in many of today’s battery-powered devices.

  • Mobile phones (LCO)
  • Tesla Model S (NCA)
  • Tesla Powerwall (NMC)
  • Chevy Volt (NMC/LMO)

The Tesla Powerwall 2 uses approximately 7kg, and a Tesla Model S (90 kWh) uses approximately 22.5kg of the energy metal.

The Cobalt Supply Chain

Cobalt production has gone almost straight up to meet demand, and production has more than doubled since the early 2000s.

But while the metal is desired, getting it is the hard part:

1. No native cobalt has ever been found in nature.

There are four widely-distributed ores that exist, but almost no cobalt is mined from them as a primary source.

2. Most cobalt production is mined as a by-product.

Mine source% cobalt production
Nickel (by-product)60%
Copper (by-product)38%
Cobalt (primary)2%

This means it is hard to expand production when more is needed.

3. Most production occurs in the DRC, a country with elevated supply risks:

CountryTonnes%
Total122,701100.0%
United States5240.4%
China1,4171.2%
DRC67,97555.4%
Rest of World52,78543.0%

(Source: CRU, estimated production for 2017, tonnes)

The Future of Cobalt Supply

Companies like Tesla and Panasonic need reliable sources of the metal, and right now there aren’t many failsafes.

The U.S. hasn’t mined cobalt in significant volumes since 1971, and the USGS reports that the United States only has 301 tonnes of the metal stored in stockpiles.

The reality is that the DRC produces about half of all cobalt, and it also holds approximately 47% of all global reserves.

Why is this a concern for end-users?

1. The DRC is one of the poorest, corrupt, and most coercive countries in the planet.

It ranks:

  • 151st out of 159 countries in the Human Freedom Index
  • 176th out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index
  • 178th out of 184 countries in terms of GDP per capita ($455)
  • 148th out of 169 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index

2. The DRC has had more deaths from war since WWII than any other country on the planet.

Recent wars in the DRC:

  • First Congo War (1996-1997) – A foreign invasion by Rwanda that overthrew the Mobutu regime.
  • Second Congo War (1998-2003) – The bloodiest conflict in world history since WW2 with 5.4 million deaths.

3. Human Rights in Mining

The DRC government estimates that 20% of all cobalt production in the country comes from artisanal miners – independent workers who dig holes and mine ore without sophisticated mines or machinery.

There are at least 100,000 artisanal cobalt miners in the DRC, and UNICEF estimates that up to 40,000 children could be in the trade. Children can be as young as seven years old, and they can work up to 12 hrs with physically demanding work, earning $2 per day.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International alleges that Apple, Samsung, and Sony fail to do basic checks in making sure the metal in their supply chains did not come from child labor.

Most major companies have vowed that any such practices will not be tolerated in their supply chains.

Other Sources

Where will tomorrow’s supply come from, and will the role of the DRC eventually diminish? Will Tesla achieve its goal of a North American supply chain for its key metal inputs?

Mining exploration companies are already looking to regions like Ontario, Idaho, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories to find tomorrow’s deposits:

Ontario: Ontario is one of the only places in the world where cobalt-primary mines that have existed. This camp is nearby the aptly named town of Cobalt, Ontario, which is located halfway between Sudbury – the world’s “Nickel Capital”, and Val-d’Or, one of the most famous gold camps in the world.

Idaho: Idaho is known as the “Gem State” while also being known for its silver camps in Couer D’Alene – but it has also been a cobalt producer in the past.

BC: The mountains of British Columbia are known for their rich gold, silver, copper, zinc, and met coal deposits. But cobalt often occurs with copper, and some mines in BC have produced cobalt in the past.

Northwest Territories: Cobalt can also be found up north, as the NWT becomes a more interesting mineral destination for companies. 160km from Yellowknife is a gold-cobalt-bismuth-copper deposit being developed.

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Energy

Mapped: Fossil Fuel Production by Country

These four animated cartograms show the nations leading the world in fossil fuel production, in terms of oil, gas, coal, and total hydrocarbons.

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Fossil fuels exist as a double-edged sword for most countries.

On one hand, they still make up a dominant piece of the current energy mix, and oil is still seen as a crucial resource for achieving geopolitical significance. It’s also no secret that fossil fuels are a driver for many economies around the world.

But with governments and corporations counting carbon emissions and mounting concerns about climate change, reliance on these same fuels will not last forever. As attitudes and policies evolve, they will continue to see a reduced role going forward.

Visualizing Fossil Fuels by Country

So, which countries are pumping out the most hydrocarbons?

Today’s cartograms come from 911Metallurgist, and the animated maps resize each country based on their share of global fossil fuel production.

Below, you’ll see four cartograms that cover oil, gas, coal, and total fossil fuel production.

Crude Oil Production

The United States leads this category, producing about 18% of the world’s total oil:

Oil production by country

Although the U.S. is the number one producer globally, it should be noted that the country doesn’t have the same quantity of oil reserves as other leading nations.

Weirdly, Venezuela has the exact opposite problem. The country has the most oil reserves in the world, but currently only sits as its 12th biggest producer.

Natural Gas Production

In terms of gas, the U.S. leads again with a 20% share of global production. Russia is also a gas powerhouse, with a 17.3% share.

Natural gas production by country

After the U.S. and Russia, it’s a fairly steep dropoff in terms of natural gas production. Countries like Iran, Canada, Qatar, and China are the next most significant players, but they each only produce 4-6% of the global total.

Coal Production

Coal use may be on the decline, but China still produces a whopping 45% of the world’s coal.

Coal production by country

China’s current relationship with coal is an interesting one.

Every year, coal has become less important in China’s energy mix – in 2011 it represented 70% of energy consumption, and by 2018 it had fell to 59%.

Despite this meaningful progress, China’s economy has grown so fast, that coal use has essentially held steady in absolute terms. Meanwhile, the country’s production of coal has actually grown slightly over the same timeframe.

Total Fossil Fuel Production

Finally, here is the sum of all three above categories, converted to metric tonnes:

Total fossil fuel production by country

The United States produces 20% of all global fossil fuels, with Russia and Iran rounding out the top three. After that comes Canada, which produces just under 5% of all fossil fuels globally.

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Automotive

Animation: U.S. Electric Vehicle Sales (2010-19)

This stunning animation visualizes the last nine years of U.S. electric vehicle sales. We also look at who will lead the race in the coming years.

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It’s challenging to get ahead, but it’s even harder to stay ahead.

For companies looking to create a sustainable competitive advantage in a fast-moving, capital intensive, and nascent sector like manufacturing electric vehicles, this is a simple reality that must be accounted for.

Every milestone achieved is met with the onset of new and more sophisticated competitors – and as the industry grows, the stakes grow higher and the market gets further de-risked. Then, the real 800-lb gorillas start to climb their way in, making competition even more fierce.

Visualizing U.S. EV Sales

Today’s animation uses data from InsideEVs to show almost nine years of U.S. sales in the electric vehicle market, sorted by model of car.

It paints a picture of a rapidly evolving market with many new competitors sweeping in to try and claim a stake. You can see the leads of early successes eroded away, the increasing value of scale, and consumer preferences, all rolled into one nifty animation.

The Tesla Roadster starts with a very early lead, but is soon replaced by the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, which are the most sold models in the U.S. from 2011-2016.

Closer to the end, the Tesla Model S rises fast to eventually surpass the Leaf by the end of 2017. Finally, the scale of the rollout of the Tesla Model 3 is put into real perspective, as it quickly jumps past all other models in the span of roughly one year.

The Gorilla Search

While Tesla’s rise has been well-documented, it’s also unclear how long the company can maintain an EV leadership position in the North American market.

As carmakers double-down on EVs as their future foundations, many well-capitalized competitors are entering the fray with serious and ambitious plans to make a dent in the market.

In the previous animation, you can already see there are multiple models from BMW, Volkswagen, Honda, Fiat, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, and Chevrolet that have accumulated over 10,000 sales – and as these manufacturers continue to pour capital in the sector, they are likely posturing to try and find how to create the next mass market EV.

Of these, Volkswagen seems to be the most bullish on a global transition to EVs, and the company is expecting to have 50 fully electric models by 2025 while investing $40 billion into new EV technologies (such as batteries) along the way.

The Chinese Bigfoot?

However, the 800-lb gorilla could come from the other side of the Pacific as well.

Global EV Sales

Source: The Driven

Chinese company BYD – which is backed by Warren Buffett – is currently the largest EV manufacturer in the world, selling 250,000 EVs in 2018.

The Chinese carmaker quietly manufacturers buses in the U.S. already, and it has also announced future plans to sell its cars in the U.S. as well.

How will such an animation of cumulative U.S. EV sales look in the future? In such a rapidly evolving space, it seems it could go any which way.

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