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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

Which Countries Have the World’s Largest Proven Oil Reserves?

The world holds 1.73 trillion barrels of proven oil reserves. Here we rank the top 14 countries that make up 93.5% of the world.

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The Countries With the Largest Proven Oil Reserves

Oil is a natural resource formed by the decay of organic matter over millions of years, and like many other natural resources, it can only be extracted from reserves where it already exists. The only difference between oil and every other natural resource is that oil is well and truly the lifeblood of the global economy.

The world derives over a third of its total energy production from oil, more than any other source by far. As a result, the countries that control the world’s oil reserves often have disproportionate geopolitical and economic power.

According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020, 14 countries make up 93.5% of the proven oil reserves globally. The countries on this list span five continents and control anywhere from 25.2 billion barrels of oil to 304 billion barrels of oil.

Proven Oil Reserves, by Country

At the end of 2019, the world had 1.73 trillion barrels of oil reserves. Here are the 14 countries with at least a 1% share of global proven oil reserves:

RankCountryOil Reserves
(billion barrels)
Share of Global Reserves
#1🇻🇪 Venezuela30417.8%
#2🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia29817.2%
#3🇨🇦 Canada1709.8%
#4🇮🇷 Iran1569.0%
#5🇮🇶 Iraq1458.4%
#6🇷🇺 Russia1076.2%
#7🇰🇼 Kuwait1025.9%
#8🇦🇪 UAE985.6%
#9🇺🇸 United States694.0%
#10🇱🇾 Libya482.8%
#11🇳🇬 Nigeria372.1%
#12🇰🇿 Kazakhstan301.7%
#13🇨🇳 China26.21.5%
#14🇶🇦 Qatar25.21.5%

While these countries are found all over the globe, a few countries have much larger amounts than others. Venezuela is the leading country in terms of oil reserves, with over 304 billion barrels of oil beneath its surface. Saudi Arabia is a close second with 298 billion, and Canada is third with 170 billion barrels of oil reserves.

Oil Reserves vs. Oil Production

A country with large amounts of reserves does not always translate to strong production numbers for petroleum, oil, and by-products. Oil reserves simply serve as an estimate of the amount of economically recoverable crude oil in a particular region. To qualify, these reserves must have the potential of being extracted under current technological constraints.

While countries like the U.S. and Russia are low on the list of oil reserves, they rank highly in terms of oil production. More than 95 million barrels of oil were produced globally every day in 2019, and the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Russia are among the world’s top oil-producing countries, respectively.

Oil Sands Contributing to Growing Reserves

Venezuela has long been an oil-producing country with heavy economic reliance on oil exports. However, in 2011, Venezuela’s energy and oil ministry announced an unprecedented increase in proven oil reserves as oil sands in the Orinoco Belt territory were certified.

Between 2005 and 2015, Venezuela jumped from fifth in the world to number one as nearly 200 billion barrels of proven oil reserves were identified. As a result, South and Central America’s proven oil reserves more than doubled between 2008 and 2011.

In 2002, Canada’s proven oil reserves jumped from 5 billion to 180 billion barrels based on new oil sands estimates.

Canada accounts for almost 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves at 170 billion barrels, with an estimated 166.3 billion located in Alberta’s oil sands, and the rest found in conventional, offshore, and tight oil formations.

Large Reserves in OPEC Nations

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is an intergovernmental global petroleum and oil distribution agency headquartered in Vienna, Austria.

The majority of countries with the largest oil reserves in the world are members of OPEC. Now composed of 14 member states, OPEC holds nearly 70% of crude oil reserves worldwide.

Most OPEC countries are in the Middle East, the region with the largest oil reserves, holding nearly half of the global share.

Regional Shifts

Though most of the proven oil reserves in the world were historically considered to be centered in the Middle East, in the past three decades their share of global oil reserves has dropped, from over 60% in 1992 to about 48% in 2019.

One of the main reasons for this drop was constant oil production and greater reserves discovered in the Americas. By 2012, Central and South America’s share had more than doubled and has remained just under 20% in the years since.

While oil sands ushered in a new era of global oil reserve domination, as the world shifts away from oil consumption and towards green energy and electrification, these reserves might not matter as much in the future as they once did.

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Energy

Visualizing the Power Consumption of Bitcoin Mining

Bitcoin mining requires significant amounts of energy, but what does this consumption look like when compared to countries and companies?

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Visualizing the Power Consumption of Bitcoin Mining

Cryptocurrencies have been some of the most talked-about assets in recent months, with bitcoin and ether prices reaching record highs. These gains were driven by a flurry of announcements, including increased adoption by businesses and institutions.

Lesser known, however, is just how much electricity is required to power the Bitcoin network. To put this into perspective, we’ve used data from the University of Cambridge’s Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI) to compare Bitcoin’s power consumption with a variety of countries and companies.

Why Does Bitcoin Mining Require So Much Power?

When people mine bitcoins, what they’re really doing is updating the ledger of Bitcoin transactions, also known as the blockchain. This requires them to solve numerical puzzles which have a 64-digit hexadecimal solution known as a hash.

Miners may be rewarded with bitcoins, but only if they arrive at the solution before others. It is for this reason that Bitcoin mining facilities—warehouses filled with computers—have been popping up around the world.

These facilities enable miners to scale up their hashrate, also known as the number of hashes produced each second. A higher hashrate requires greater amounts of electricity, and in some cases can even overload local infrastructure.

Putting Bitcoin’s Power Consumption Into Perspective

On March 18, 2021, the annual power consumption of the Bitcoin network was estimated to be 129 terawatt-hours (TWh). Here’s how this number compares to a selection of countries, companies, and more.

NamePopulation Annual Electricity Consumption (TWh)
China1,443M6,543
United States330.2M3,989
All of the world’s data centers-205
State of New York19.3M161
Bitcoin network -129 
Norway5.4M124
Bangladesh165.7M70
Google-12
Facebook-5
Walt Disney World Resort (Florida)-1

Note: A terawatt hour (TWh) is a measure of electricity that represents 1 trillion watts sustained for one hour.
Source: Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, Science Mag, New York ISO, Forbes, Facebook, Reedy Creek Improvement District, Worldometer

If Bitcoin were a country, it would rank 29th out of a theoretical 196, narrowly exceeding Norway’s consumption of 124 TWh. When compared to larger countries like the U.S. (3,989 TWh) and China (6,543 TWh), the cryptocurrency’s energy consumption is relatively light.

For further comparison, the Bitcoin network consumes 1,708% more electricity than Google, but 39% less than all of the world’s data centers—together, these represent over 2 trillion gigabytes of storage.

Where Does This Energy Come From?

In a 2020 report by the University of Cambridge, researchers found that 76% of cryptominers rely on some degree of renewable energy to power their operations. There’s still room for improvement, though, as renewables account for just 39% of cryptomining’s total energy consumption.

Here’s how the share of cryptominers that use each energy type vary across four global regions.

Energy SourceAsia-PacificEuropeLatin America
and the Caribbean
North America
Hydroelectric65%60%67%61%
Natural gas38%33%17%44%
Coal65%2%0%28%
Wind23%7%0%22%
Oil12%7%33%22%
Nuclear12%7%0%22%
Solar12%13%17%17%
Geothermal8%0%0%6%

Source: University of Cambridge
Editor’s note: Numbers in each column are not meant to add to 100%

Hydroelectric energy is the most common source globally, and it gets used by at least 60% of cryptominers across all four regions. Other types of clean energy such as wind and solar appear to be less popular.

Coal energy plays a significant role in the Asia-Pacific region, and was the only source to match hydroelectricity in terms of usage. This can be largely attributed to China, which is currently the world’s largest consumer of coal.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge noted that they weren’t surprised by these findings, as the Chinese government’s strategy to ensure energy self-sufficiency has led to an oversupply of both hydroelectric and coal power plants.

Towards a Greener Crypto Future

As cryptocurrencies move further into the mainstream, it’s likely that governments and other regulators will turn their attention to the industry’s carbon footprint. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however.

Mike Colyer, CEO of Foundry, a blockchain financing provider, believes that cryptomining can support the global transition to renewable energy. More specifically, he believes that clustering cryptomining facilities near renewable energy projects can mitigate a common issue: an oversupply of electricity.

“It allows for a faster payback on solar projects or wind projects… because they would [otherwise] produce too much energy for the grid in that area”
– Mike Colyer, CEO, Foundry

This type of thinking appears to be taking hold in China as well. In April 2020, Ya’an, a city located in China’s Sichuan province, issued a public guidance encouraging blockchain firms to take advantage of its excess hydroelectricity.

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