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.
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
- Permanent magnets
Batteries drives 49% of demand – and most of this comes from cobalt’s usage in lithium-ion battery cathodes:
|Type of lithium-ion cathode||Cobalt in cathode||Spec. energy (Wh/kg)|
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|
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:
|Rest of World||52,785||43.0%|
(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.
- 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.
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.
What’s Made from a Barrel of Oil?
Oil is a building block that makes modern life possible. Here are the proportion of finished products that are created from a barrel of oil.
What Products Are Made from a Barrel of Oil?
From the gasoline in our cars to the plastic in countless everyday items, crude oil is an essential raw material that shows up everywhere in our lives.
With around 18 million barrels of crude oil consumed every day just in America, this commodity powers transport, utilities, and is a vital ingredient in many of the things we use on a daily basis.
This graphic visualizes how much crude oil is refined into various finished products, using a barrel of oil to represent the proportional breakdown.
Barrel of Oil to Functional Fuel and More
Crude oil is primarily refined into various types of fuels to power transport and vital utilities. More than 85% of crude oil is refined into fuels like gasoline, diesel, and hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGLs) like propane and butane.
Along with being fuels for transportation, heating, and cooking, HGLs are used as feedstock for the production of chemicals, plastics, and synthetic rubber, and as additives for motor gasoline production.
|Refined Crude Oil Product||Share of Crude Oil Refined|
|Hydrocarbon gas liquids||2.0%|
Source: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
Crude oil not only powers our vehicles, but it also helps pave the roads we drive on. About 4% of refined crude oil becomes asphalt, which is used to make concrete and different kinds of sealing and insulation products.
Although transportation and utility fuels dominate a large proportion of refined products, essential everyday materials like wax and plastic are also dependent on crude oil. With about 10% of refined products used to make plastics, cosmetics, and textiles, a barrel of crude oil can produce a variety of unexpected everyday products.
Personal care products like cosmetics and shampoo are made using petroleum products, as are medical supplies like IV bags and pharmaceuticals. Modern life would look very different without crude oil.
The Process of Refining Crude Oil
You might have noticed that while a barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, it ends up producing 45 gallons of refined products. This is because the majority of refined products have a lower density than crude oil, resulting in an increase in volume that is called processing gain.
Along with this, there are other inputs aside from crude oil that are used in the refining process. While crude oil is the primary input, fuel ethanol, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and other blending liquids are also used.
|U.S. Refiner and Blender Inputs||Share of Total|
|Hydrocarbon gas liquids||3.0%|
The process of refining a 30,000-barrel batch of crude oil typically takes between 12-24 hours, with refineries operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Although the proportions of individual refined products can vary depending on market demand and other factors, the majority of crude oil will continue to become fuel for the world’s transport and utilities.
The Difficulty of Cutting Down on Crude Oil
From the burning of heavy fuels that tarnish icebergs found in Arctic waters to the mounds of plastic made with petrochemicals that end up in our rivers, each barrel of oil and its refined products impact our environment in many different ways.
But even as the world works to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels in order to reach climate goals, a world without crude oil seems unfathomable.
Skyrocketing sales of EVs still haven’t managed to curb petroleum consumption in places like Norway, California, and China, and the steady reopening of travel and the economy will only result in increased petroleum consumption.
Completely replacing the multi-faceted “black gold” that’s in a barrel of oil isn’t possible right now, but as electrification continues and we find alternatives to petrochemical materials, humanity might at least manage to reduce its dependence on burning fossil fuels.
Mapped: Visualizing U.S. Oil Production by State
The U.S. is the largest oil producer in the world. Here we map the share of oil production in the country by all 50 states in 2020.
Mapped: Visualizing U.S. Oil Production by State
In 2018, the United States became the world’s top crude oil producer. It has strongly held this position ever since.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the country accounted for nearly 15% of the world’s total oil production in 2020, churning out close to 13 million barrels of crude oil per day—more than Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Although total U.S. oil production declined between 1985 and 2008, annual production increased nearly every year from 2009 through 2019, reaching the highest amount on record in 2019.
The Dominant Oil Producing States
Impressively, 71% of total U.S. oil production came from just five states. An additional 14.6% came from the Gulf of Mexico, which is a federal jurisdiction.
Here are the five states that produce the largest amount of crude oil:
|Share of Total Production|
Rounding the top 10 are states like Alaska, California, Wyoming, Louisiana, and Utah.
Texas is undoubtedly the largest oil-producing state in the United States. In 2020, Texas produced a total of 1.78 billion barrels of oil. Texas is home to the most productive U.S. oil basin, the Permian, routinely accounting for at least 50% of total onshore production. A distant second is North Dakota, which produced about 431.2 million barrels of oil in 2020.
Regional Distribution of U.S. Oil Production
A total of 32 of the 50 U.S. states produce oil. They are divided among five regional divisions for oil production in the U.S., known as the Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts (PADD).
These five regional divisions of the allocation of fuels were established in the U.S. during the Second World War and are still used today for data collection purposes.
Given that Texas is the largest U.S. oil-producing state, PADD 3 (Gulf Coast) is also the largest oil-producing PADD. PADD 3 also includes the federal offshore region in the Gulf of Mexico. There are around 400 operational oil and gas rigs in the country.
Impact of U.S. Oil Production on Employment
Rapid growth in oil production using advanced drilling methods has created high-paying jobs in states like North Dakota and Texas.
Thanks to the rapid development in the Bakken Shale formation, North Dakota boasts the nation’s lowest unemployment rate. The state has also grown personal income and state economic output at a fast rate, due to oil and gas industry growth.
Oil production from the Eagle Ford Shale has transformed a relatively poor region of South Texas into one of the nation’s most significant economic development zones. In fact, due largely to the oil and natural gas industry, the Texas Comptroller estimates that Texas has recovered 100% of the jobs lost during the Great Recession.
Looking to the Future
The U.S. slashed its oil production forecast through next year just as OPEC and its allies begin to roll back their production cuts in the coming months.
U.S. oil output will drop to 11.04 million barrels a day this year, down from a forecasted 11.15 million. This was a result of the deep freeze that shut down the oil industry in Texas. The EIA also lowered its output forecast for 2022 by 100,000 barrels a day.
Despite its forecast for a rise in supply from outside the cartel this year, OPEC said in its report that it is uncertain about the levels of investment expected to determine the non-OPEC supply outlook for the years to come.
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