The use of cobalt largely benefits from its hardness, anti-corrosion and high-temperature resistance characteristics, making it a competitive alloying metal for a variety of critical industrial applications. Since the first commercialisation of Li-ion batteries by Sony, it has been the development of consumer electronics that has underpinned cobalt demand. More recently, demand for cobalt chemicals in rechargeable battery cathodes has grown rapidly, driven by the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) in the context of collective governmental efforts to shift towards a low-carbon world.
Despite being a technology enabler for modern society, volatility has increasingly become a characteristic of the cobalt market owing to the complexities of its supply chain as well as those of the fast-moving battery and aerospace sectors. The high concentration of mining and refining production in two countries, the DRC and China, coupled with ESG concerns, represent potential long-term supply risks deeply embedded in the value chain. Short term, cobalt demand also faces headwinds from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the battery and aerospace industries and trends towards thrifting of cobalt in Li-ion battery chemistries (in favour of higher nickel loadings).
Underpinned by the huge demand for cobalt feedstocks from the battery sector versus relatively tight supply, the cobalt metal price climbed from below US$15/lb in 2016 to a ten-year high of US$43/lb in Q2 2018. High metal prices and hydroxide payables in turn led to an enormous supply response from producers in the DRC, including artisanal producers. New supply from sizable producers like Katanga Mining, coupled with swing artisanal production, put the market into oversupply.
Consequently, prices started to retreat from mid-2018 and fell to a three-year low of $13/lb in July 2019. Despite some rebound in hydroxide payables and metal prices in late 2019 as Glencore mothballed Mutanda, the largest cobalt mine in the world, the cobalt metal price fell back to close to a 10-month low in June 2020. The premia for battery chemicals including cobalt sulphate and tetroxide also dwindled as a result of near-term uncertainty in the market following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the short-term challenges, Roskill believes that the cobalt market is now entering a new phase of consolidation and rejuvenation. The medium-term demand for cobalt is expected to grow steadily once battery and aerospace sectors recover from recent setbacks with the assistance of supportive government subsidy/rescue schemes both in China and Europe. In addition, as market participants re-focus on supply chain security and sustainability, a more resilient and diverse cobalt value chain could be built. As such, cobalt should continue to play an essential role in the global transition towards clean energy technologies.