Cobalt: Blue, Green and Red
Cobalt is a blue-colored, ferromagnetic heavy metal. It is primarily used in batteries, superalloys, coloring, and chemical processes. It is a toxic, corrosive, and volatile substance in its pure form. It is semi-abundant, naturally combined with other minerals, and requires complex processing for separation. Most of our cobalt today is procured as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining.
Cobalt is crucial to the world economy as we move towards green energy which will depend heavily on rechargeable batteries. Let’s analyze the latest cobalt import export data to get the bigger picture.
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A closer look
“Cobalt” comes from “Kobold” meaning Goblin in German. It was named so because of the arsenic fumes that are released during smelting and their toxic characteristics. Despite its notoriety, cobalt has been found in glass, ceramics, sculptures, and jewelry ranging millennia. From 1500 BCE ancient Egypt to the 1500 CE Ming dynasty China, different cultures have used it aesthetically. It was identified and discovered in 1735 by Swedish chemist Georg Brandt, the first recorded discoverer of a metal.
The cobalt export data shows the many cobalt products, other than batteries, that are exported from different countries. Yet the beginning of this supply chain lies someplace more chaotic. The Dominican Republic of Congo (DRC) is a low-GDP country that owns around 70% of all known cobalt reserves. Much of the population is engaged in hazardous manual mining in detrimental conditions. The US and Canada have safer, more organized operations that use mechanical processes by comparison. In other noteworthy news, Norway has discovered a vast underwater reserve and Finland is becoming a hotspot for future operations.
Top exporting countries (2020)
- Democratic Republic of the Congo ($2.36 billion)
- Canada ($300 million)
- United States ($261 million)
- Norway ($249 million)
- Finland ($199 million)
China and the US have fought trade wars for many years and it's clear who’s won on the cobalt front. China outright owns or has ties to 15 out of the 19 total mines in the DRC. The country is thought to have control over about 75% of the global supply. Control over the cobalt supply is expected to give compounding returns as we shift toward green energy. As seen in the cobalt import data, China, the US, and Japan import cobalt in many forms other than raw materials.
Top importing countries (2020)
- China ($2.6 billion)
- United States ($381 million)
- Japan ($327 million)
- Netherlands ($322 million)
- Singapore ($174 million)
What’s in store?
In 2020, concerns were rising about the levels of Cobalt reserves in relation to decarbonization goals. Political instability in the DRC, hoarding, and mass anxiety led to all-time highs of $80,000/ton. Since then there has been extensive surveying, exchange of information, and development of technologies. Cheaper recycling techniques that give 97% cobalt back from batteries have been developed. In response, cobalt prices have dropped down to about $40,000/ton nearing all-time lows. Currently, there is no shortage in sight.
The situation in the DRC is essential to cobalt’s future. The country does have proper mechanic operations set up by MNCs for their battery needs. Yet the produce from manual laborers is intertwined with the total supply. The white-washed term “artisanal mining” cannot wash away the red tinge of exploitation from the call for green energy. The realities of these mines were uncovered almost a decade ago and are now finally getting mainstream attention. The future of green energy and the blue metal has to be diverted through more sustainable channels.