Why companies are scrambling for the once little-known element cobalt

Key Points
  • Cobalt prices more than doubled in 2017, fueled in part by demand and investor interest.
  • Rising demand for electrified vehicles could lead to cobalt shortages.
Here’s why companies are scrambling for cobalt
Here’s why companies are scrambling for cobalt

The once little-known element cobalt is rapidly rising in price, and some warn shortages could hit the metal in the future.

The proliferation of lithium-ion batteries, of which cobalt is a key ingredient, in electronics and electrified vehicles is the chief factor fueling this rise in price and concerns among companies over the security of their supplies.

Prices for the metal more than doubled in 2017 over the previous year, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Some companies have responded to the jump by looking for ways to secure stocks for their own supply chains. Apple is reportedly trying to procure its cobalt directly from miners. Automakers such as BMW and Volkswagen have also reportedly been taking similar steps.

Demand for cobalt in vehicle battery materials is expected to grow over 40 percent in 2018, according to U.K.-based cobalt trading firm Darton Commodities. Electric and hybrid vehicle adoption in China and Europe are expected to be significant contributors, and the production ramp of the Tesla Model 3 is expected to be the major driver of EV adoption in the U.S., Darton said in its annual Cobalt Market Review report published in February.

While engineers can sometimes find ways to change designs or use substitutes for some elements, cobalt could be tough to replace. There are potential substitutes, but substitution in some uses may lead to losses in performance.

"There isn't a better element than nickel to increase energy density, and there isn't a better element than cobalt to make the stuff stable," said Marc Grynberg, CEO of materials company Umicore, in an interview with Reuters. "So (while) you hear about designing out cobalt, this is not going to happen in the next three decades. It simply doesn't work."

One potential snag is the fact that the majority of the world's cobalt is mined as a byproduct of some other metal mining. In 2017, about 69 percent of the world's cobalt was mined as a copper byproduct and 29 percent as a nickel byproduct. So the availability of cobalt right now is pretty heavily dependent on the health of the markets for copper and nickel.

Mining companies such as ERG and Glencore are planning new cobalt operations that may balance supply and demand in the near term, but if electrified vehicles continue to gain market share, any stabilization may be short-lived.

"While production increases are expected to level off by around 2022, demand is expected to accelerate further as EVs will be close to reaching cost parity with [internal combustion engine] vehicles by this time," said Darton in its report.

WATCH: Apple looking for direct access to battery component cobalt

Apple looking for direct access to battery component cobalt
Apple looking for direct access to battery component cobalt