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

(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

How Much Solar Energy is Consumed Per Capita? (1965-2019)

This visualization highlights the growth in solar energy consumption per capita over 54 years. Which countries are leading the way?

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How Much Solar Energy is Consumed Per Capita?

The long history of solar energy use dates as far back as 4,000 B.C.—when ancient civilizations would use solar architecture to design dwellings that would use more of the sun’s warmth in the winter, while reducing excess heat in the summer.

But despite its long history, we’ve only recently started to rely on solar energy as a renewable power source. This Our World in Data visualization pulls data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy to highlight how solar energy consumption per capita has grown in countries around the world over 54 years.

Solar Success: The Top Consumers Per Capita

Solar energy consumption is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh)—and as of the latest estimates, Australia leads the world in terms of highest solar energy consumption per capita at 1,764 kWh in 2019. A combination of factors help achieve this:

  • Optimal weather conditions
  • High gross domestic product (GDP) per capita
  • Tariffs incentivizing the shift to solar

In fact, government subsidies such as financial assistance with installation and feed-in tariffs help bring down the costs of residential solar systems to a mere AUD$1 (US$0.70) per watt.

RankCountrySolar consumption per capita
(kWh, 2019)
Solar’s share of total
(per capita consumption)
#1🇦🇺 Australia1,7642.50%
#2🇯🇵 Japan1,4693.59%
#3🇩🇪 Germany1,4093.22%
#4🇦🇪 UAE1,0560.77%
#5🇮🇹 Italy9953.40%
#6🇬🇷 Greece9363.08%
#7🇧🇪 Belgium8471.30%
#8🇨🇱 Chile8233.39%
#9🇺🇸 U.S.8151.02%
#10🇪🇸 Spain7972.34%

Source: Our World in Data, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020
Note that some conversions have been made for primary energy consumption values from Gigajoules (GJ) to kWh.

Coming in second place, Japan has the highest share of solar (3.59%) compared to its total primary energy consumption per capita. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the nation made plans to double its renewable energy use by 2030.

Japan has achieved its present high rates of solar energy use through creative means, from repurposing abandoned golf courses to building floating “solar islands”.

Solar Laggards: The Bottom Consumers Per Capita

On the flip side, several countries that lag behind on solar use are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. These include several members of OPEC—Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela—and former member state Indonesia.

This reliance may also explain why, despite being located in regions that receive the most annual “sunshine hours” in the world, this significant solar potential is yet unrealized.

RankCountrySolar consumption
per capita (kWh, 2019)
Primary energy consumption
per capita (kWh, 2019)
#1🇮🇸 Iceland0No data available
#2🇱🇻 Latvia0No data available
#3🇮🇩 Indonesia<19,140
#4🇺🇿 Uzbekistan<115,029
#5🇭🇰 Hong Kong<146,365
#6🇻🇪 Venezuela121,696
#7🇴🇲 Oman284,535
#8🇹🇲 Turkmenistan367,672
#9🇮🇶 Iraq415,723
#10🇮🇷 Iran541,364

Source: Our World in Data, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020
Note that some conversions have been made for primary energy consumption values from Gigajoules (GJ) to kWh.

Interestingly, Iceland is on this list for a different reason. Although the country still relies on renewable energy, it gets this from different sources than solar—a significant share comes from hydropower as well as geothermal power.

The Future of Solar

One thing the visualization above makes clear is that solar’s impact on the global energy mix has only just begun. As the costs associated with producing solar power continue to fall, we’re on a steady track to transform solar energy into a more significant means of generating power.

All in all, with the world’s projected energy mix from total renewables set to increase over 300% by 2040, solar energy is on a rising trend upwards.

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Energy

Mapped: The World’s Largest State-Owned Oil Companies

State-owned oil companies control roughly three-quarters of global oil supply. See how these companies compare in this infographic.

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Mapped: The World’s Largest State-Owned Oil Companies

View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.

Oil is one of the world’s most important natural resources, playing a critical role in everything from transportation fuels to cosmetics.

For this reason, many governments choose to nationalize their supply of oil. This gives them a greater degree of control over their oil reserves as well as access to additional revenue streams. In practice, nationalization often involves the creation of a national oil company to oversee the country’s energy operations.

What are the world’s largest and most influential state-owned oil companies?

Editor’s Note: This post and infographic are intended to provide a broad summary of the state-owned oil industry. Due to variations in reporting and available information, the companies named do not represent a comprehensive index.

State-Owned Oil Companies by Revenue

National oil companies are a major force in the global energy sector, controlling approximately three-quarters of the Earth’s oil reserves.

As a result, many have found their place on the Fortune Global 500 list, a ranking of the world’s 500 largest companies by revenue.

CountryNameFortune Global 500 Rank2019 Revenues 
🇨🇳 ChinaSinopec Group2$443B
🇨🇳 ChinaChina National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) 4$379B
🇸🇦 Saudi ArabiaSaudi Aramco6$330B
🇷🇺 RussiaRosneft76$96B
🇧🇷 BrazilPetrobras120$77B
🇮🇳 IndiaIndian Oil Corporation (IOCL) 151$69B
🇲🇾 MalaysiaPetronas186$58B
🇮🇷 IranNational Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) Not listed$19B* 
🇻🇪 Venezuela Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)Not listed$23B (2018)

*Value of Iranian petroleum exports in 2019. Source: Fortune, Statista, OPEC

China is home to the two largest companies from this list, Sinopec Group and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Both are involved in upstream and downstream oil operations, where upstream refers to exploration and extraction, and downstream refers to refining and distribution.

It’s worth noting that many of these companies are listed on public stock markets—Sinopec, for example, trades on exchanges located in Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York, and London. Going public can be an effective strategy for these companies as it allows them to raise capital for new projects, while also ensuring their governments maintain control. In the case of Sinopec, 68% of shares are held by the Chinese government.

Saudi Aramco was the latest national oil company to follow this strategy, putting up 1.5% of its business in a 2019 initial public offering (IPO). At roughly $8.53 per share, Aramco’s IPO raised $25.6 billion, making it one of the world’s largest IPOs in history.

Geopolitical Tensions

Because state-owned oil companies are directly tied to their governments, they can sometimes get caught in the crosshairs of geopolitical conflicts.

The disputed presidency of Nicolás Maduro, for example, has resulted in the U.S. imposing sanctions against Venezuela’s government, central bank, and national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). The pressure of these sanctions is proving to be particularly damaging, with PDVSA’s daily production in decline since 2016.

State-Owned Oil Companies - Venezuela example

In a country for which oil comprises 95% of exports, Venezuela’s economic outlook is becoming increasingly dire. The final straw was drawn in August 2020 when the country’s last remaining oil rig suspended its operations.

Other national oil companies at the receiving end of American sanctions include Russia’s Rosneft and Iran’s National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Rosneft was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020 for facilitating Venezuelan oil exports, while NIOC was targeted for providing financial support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an entity designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

Climate Pressures

Like the rest of the fossil fuel industry, state-owned oil companies are highly exposed to the effects of climate change. This suggests that as time passes, many governments will need to find a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.

Brazil has already found itself in this dilemma as the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has drawn criticism for his dismissive stance on climate change. In June 2020, a group of European investment firms representing $2 trillion in assets threatened to divest from Brazil if it did not do more to protect the Amazon rainforest.

These types of ultimatums may be an effective solution for driving climate action forward. In December 2020, Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, pledged a 25% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. When asked about commitments further into the future, however, the company’s CEO appeared to be less enthusiastic.

That’s like a fad, to make promises for 2050. It’s like a magical year. On this side of the Atlantic we have a different view of climate change.

— Roberto Castello Branco, CEO, Petrobras

With its 2030 pledge, Petrobras joins a growing collection of state-owned oil companies that have made public climate commitments. Another example is Malaysia’s Petronas, which in November 2020, announced its intention to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Petronas is wholly owned by the Malaysian government and is the country’s only entry on the Fortune Global 500.

Challenges Lie Ahead

Between geopolitical conflicts, environmental concerns, and price fluctuations, state-owned oil companies are likely to face a much tougher environment in the decades to come.

For Petronas, achieving its 2050 climate commitments will require significant investment in cleaner forms of energy. The company has been involved in numerous solar energy projects across Asia and has stated its interests in hydrogen fuels.

Elsewhere, China’s national oil companies are dealing with a more near-term threat. In compliance with an executive order issued by the Trump Administration in November 2020, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) announced it would delist three of China’s state-run telecom companies. Analysts believe oil companies such as Sinopec could be delisted next, due to their ties with the Chinese military.

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