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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

Map: The Countries With the Most Oil Reserves

See the countries with the most oil reserves on this map, which resizes each country based on how many barrels of oil are contained in its borders.

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Map: The Countries With the Most Oil Reserves

There’s little doubt that renewable energy sources will play a strategic role in powering the global economy of the future.

But for now, crude oil is still the undisputed heavyweight champion of the energy world.

In 2018, we consumed more oil than any prior year in history – about 99.3 million barrels per day on a global basis. This number is projected to rise again in 2019 to 100.8 million barrels per day.

The Most Oil Reserves by Country

Given that oil will continue to be dominant in the energy mix for the short and medium term, which countries hold the most oil reserves?

Today’s map comes from HowMuch.net and it uses data from the CIA World Factbook to resize countries based on the amount of oil reserves they hold.

Here’s the data for the top 15 countries below:

RankCountryOil Reserves (Barrels)
#1🇻🇪 Venezuela300.9 billion
#2🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia266.5 billion
#3🇨🇦 Canada169.7 billion
#4🇮🇷 Iran158.4 billion
#5🇮🇶 Iraq142.5 billion
#6🇰🇼 Kuwait101.5 billion
#7🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates97.8 billion
#8🇷🇺 Russia80.0 billion
#9🇱🇾 Libya48.4 billion
#10🇳🇬 Nigeria37.1 billion
#11🇺🇸 United States36.5 billion
#12🇰🇿 Kazakhstan30.0 billion
#13🇨🇳 China25.6 billion
#14🇶🇦 Qatar25.2 billion
#15🇧🇷 Brazil12.7 billion

Venezuela tops the list with 300.9 billion barrels of oil in reserve – but even this vast wealth in natural resources has not been enough to save the country from its recent economic and humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia, a country known for its oil dominance, takes the #2 spot with 266.5 billion barrels of oil. Meanwhile, Canada and the U.S. are found at the #3 (169.7 billion bbls) and the #11 (36.5 billion bbls) spots respectively.

The Cost of Production

While having an endowment of billions of barrels of oil within your borders can be a strategic gift from mother nature, it’s worth mentioning that reserves are just one factor in assessing the potential value of this crucial resource.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the production cost of oil is roughly $3.00 per barrel, which makes black gold strategic to produce at almost any possible price.

Other countries are not so lucky:

CountryProduction cost (bbl)Total cost (bbl)*
🇬🇧 United Kingdom$17.36$44.33
🇧🇷 Brazil$9.45$34.99
🇳🇬 Nigeria$8.81$28.99
🇻🇪 Venezuela$7.94$27.62
🇨🇦 Canada$11.56$26.64
🇺🇸 U.S. shale$5.85$23.35
🇳🇴 Norway$4.24$21.31
🇺🇸 U.S. non-shale$5.15$20.99
🇮🇩 Indonesia$6.87$19.71
🇷🇺 Russia$2.98$19.21
🇮🇶 Iraq$2.16$10.57
🇮🇷 Iran$1.94$9.09
🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia$3.00$8.98
*Total cost (bbl) includes production cost (also shown), capital spending, gross taxes, and admin/transport costs.

Even if a country is blessed with some of the most oil reserves in the world, it may not be able to produce and sell that oil to maximize the potential benefit.

Countries like Canada and Venezuela are hindered by geology – in these places, the majority of oil is extra heavy crude or bitumen (oil sands), and these types of oil are simply more difficult and costly to extract.

In other places, obstacles are are self-imposed. In some countries, like Brazil and the U.S., there are higher taxes on oil production, which raises the total cost per barrel.

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Energy

Mapped: Every Power Plant in the United States

What sources of power are closest to you, and how has this mix changed over the last 10 years? See every power plant in the U.S. on this handy map.

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This Map Shows Every Power Plant in the United States

Every year, the United States generates 4,000 million MWh of electricity from utility-scale sources.

While the majority comes from fossil fuels like natural gas (32.1%) and coal (29.9%), there are also many other minor sources that feed into the grid, ranging from biomass to geothermal.

Do you know where your electricity comes from?

The Big Picture View

Today’s series of maps come from Weber State University, and they use information from the EPA’s eGRID databases to show every utility-scale power plant in the country.

Use the white slider in the middle below to see how things have changed between 2007 and 2016:

The biggest difference between the two maps is the reduced role of coal, which is no longer the most dominant energy source in the country. You can also see many smaller-scale wind and solar dots appear throughout the appropriate regions.

Here’s a similar look at how the energy mix has changed in the United States over the last 70 years:

Energy net generation over time

Up until the 21st century, power almost always came from fossil fuels, nuclear, or hydro sources. More recently, we can see different streams of renewables making a dent in the mix.

Maps by Source

Now let’s look at how these maps look by individual sources to see regional differences more clearly.

Here’s the map only showing fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel power plants in the U.S.

The two most prominent sources are coal (black) and natural gas (orange), and they combine to make up about 60% of total annual net generation.

Now here’s just nuclear on the map:

Nuclear power plants in the U.S.

Nuclear is pretty uncommon on the western half of the country, but on the Eastern Seaboard and in the Midwest, it is a major power source. All in all, it makes up about 20% of the annual net generation mix.

Finally, a look at renewable energy:

Renewables power plants in the U.S.

Hydro (dark blue), wind (light blue), solar (yellow), biomass (brown), and geothermal (green) all appear here.

Aside from a few massive hydro installations – such as the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State (19 million MWh per year) – most renewable installations are on a smaller scale.

Generally speaking, renewable sources are also more dependent on geography. You can’t put geothermal in an area where there is no thermal energy in the ground, or wind where there is mostly calm weather. For this reason, the dispersion of green sources around the country is also quite interesting to look at.

See all of the above, as well as Hawaii and Alaska, in an interactive map here.

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