Tag Archives: rare metals

Congo, China and Battery Minerals

Electric truck battery pack between the axles. Image from wikipedia

The demand of cobalt is bound to increase because of the batteries needed to power  electric vehicles (EVs).  Each battery uses about 10kg of cobalt. It is widely known that more than half of the world’s cobalt reserves and production are in one dangerously unstable country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is less well known is that four-fifths of the cobalt sulphates and oxides used to make the all-important cathodes for lithium-ion batteries are refined in China. (Much of the other 20% is processed in Finland, but its raw material, too, comes from a mine in Congo, majority-owned by a Chinese firm, China Molybdenum.)

On March 14t, 2018 concerns about China’s grip on Congo’s cobalt production deepened when GEM, a Chinese battery maker, said it would acquire a third of the cobalt shipped by Glencore, the world’s biggest producer of the metal, between 2018 and 2020—equivalent to almost half of the world’s 110,000-tonne production in 2017. This is likely to add momentum to a rally that has pushed the price of cobalt up from an average of $26,500 a tonne in 2016 to above $90,000 a tonne

South Korean and Japanese tech firms and it’s a big concern of theirs that so much of the world’s cobalt sulphate comes from China. Memories are still fresh of a maritime squabble in 2010, during which China restricted exports of rare-earth metals vital to Japanese tech firms. China produces about 85% of the world’s rare earths.

Few analysts expect the cobalt market to soften soon. Production in Congo is likely to increase in the next few years, but some investment may be deterred by a recent five-fold leap in royalties on cobalt. Investment elsewhere is limited because cobalt is almost always mined alongside copper or nickel. Even at current prices, the quantities needed are not enough to justify production for cobalt alone.

But demand could explode if EVs surge in popularity… the use of cobalt for EVs could jump from 9,000 tonnes in 2017 to 107,000 tonnes in 2026.  The resulting higher prices would eventually unlock new sources of supply. But already non-Chinese battery manufacturers are looking for ways to protect themselves from potential shortages. Their best answer to date is nickel.

The materials most commonly used for cathodes in EV batteries are a combination of nickel, manganese and cobalt known as NMC, and one of nickel, cobalt and aluminium known as NCA. As cobalt has become pricier and scarcer, some battery makers have produced cobalt-lite cathodes by raising the nickel content—to as much as eight times the amount of cobalt. This allows the battery to run longer on a single charge, but makes it harder to manufacture and more prone to burst into flames. The trick is to get the balance right.

Strangely, nickel has not had anything like cobalt’s price rise. Nor do the Chinese appear to covet it… Nickel prices plummeted from $29,000 a tonne in 2011 to below $10,000 a tonne 2017…. But by 2025 McKinsey expects EV-related nickel demand to rise 16-fold to 550,000 tonnes.

In theory, the best way to ensure sufficient supplies of both nickel and cobalt would be for prices to rise enough to make mining them together more profitable. But that would mean more expensive batteries, and thus electric vehicles.

Excerpts from The Scramble for Battery Minerals, Economist, Mar. 24, 2018

The Power Plays in Africa

As the overthrow of despot Robert Mugabe entered a stalemate on November 17,  2017, eyes turned to China — Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor and a key ally — amid speculation over its role in the military coup.Source in Harare believe the Zimbabwean conflict within the ruling party Zanu PF is involving two rival camps has direct links to China and Russia with both countries trying to control and protect their own economic interests.

The army chief General Constantino Chiwenga, visited Beijing l — just days before tanks rolled into the streets of Harare. President Mugabe has been been hostile to the Chinese in recent years accusing them of plundering the countries diamonds worth $15 billion.  On October 2017 First Lady Grace Mugabe was in Russia where she represented her 93-year-old husband at a function where he was honoured with some accolade in Russia at the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) in Moscow.

“It is a BRICS internal rivalry with both Russia and South Africa on one side trying to protect their economic interests and China on the other side,” a regional think-tank in London said on November 17, 2017… Russia has been investing in several projects in southern African nations, for example, the ALROSA group of diamond mining companies is engaged in several projects in Zimbabwe, while mining and steelmaking company Evraz and Severstal steel and steel-related mining company conduct their business in South Africa.

Russia and South Africa, which together control about 80% of the world’s reserves of platinum group metals, have created a trading bloc similar to OPEC to control the flow of exports according to Bloomberg.

Zimbabwe, Canada, and the U.S. are among other major platinum group metals producers.

Russian and South African officials signed a memorandum of understanding today to cooperate in the industry.South Africa mines about 70 percent of the world’s platinum, while Russia leads in palladium, a platinum group metal used in autocatalysts, with about 40% of output, according to a 2012 report by Johnson Matthey Plc.

According to the Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe (CMZ) and geologists, Zimbabwe has far bigger platinum reserves than Russia. The country currently has the second known largest platinum reserves after South Africa. Experts say underfunding and limited exploration has over the years stifled growth of the mining sector.

The Zimbabwe chamber is on record saying it seeks to increase production to the targeted 500 000 ounces per annum requires the setting up of base and precious metal smelters and refineries, investment of $2,8 billion in mines, $2 billion in processing plants and between $200 and $500 million to ensure adequate power supply. Already, the country’s major platinum miners – Zimplats, Unki and Mimosa who are currently processing the metal in neighbouring South Africa – have undertaken to construct the refinery….

Miles Blessing Tendi, a lecturer in African history and politics at the University of Oxford, says there is no way to be certain if China knew about Mugabe’s fate but believes China’s respect for sovereignty would make their involvement uncharacteristic.

Excerpt, It gets ugly as Russia and South Africa gang-up against China over Zimbabwe coup, http://www.thezimbabwemail.com/, November 17, 2017

The Hunger for Rare Metals

Indium wire. image from wikipedia

Indium, part of an iPhone’s screen, is an “invisible link…between the phone and your finger”. Just a pinch of niobium, a soft, granite-grey metal mined mostly in Brazil, greatly strengthens a tonne of steel used in bridges and pipelines. Lithium is so light that it has become essential for rechargeable car-batteries. Dysprosium, as well as making an electric toothbrush whirr, helps power wind turbines. Military technology depends on numerous rare metals. Tungsten, for instance, is crucial for armour-piercing bullets. America’s forthcoming F-35 fighter planes are “flying periodic tables”, Mr Abraham writes….[T]he “long tailpipe” of pollution left in the wake of mining and refining, rare metals..

Supplies are also a worry. In 2010 a Chinese trawler rammed Japanese coastguard vessels in waters near islands called the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese (their ownership is disputed by both countries). After the Chinese captain was detained, supplies of rare metals from the mainland to Japan suspiciously dried up. Though China never acknowledged an export ban, the incident caused rare-metal prices to spike, and unsettled manufacturers around the world. …

[The business of rare metals] generates $4 billion of revenues a year and also plays a critical role in systems worth about $4 trillion. China, which develops more rare metals than any other country, understands the calculus. The West, his book suggests, does not.

Excerpts from Rare metals: Unobtainiums, Economist, Jan. 16,  2016 (Book Review of ‘The Elements of Power by  D. Abraham]