With the surge in demand for electric vehicles causing the need for more ‘Gigafactories’ to be built, demand is high for lithium ion batteries’ key ingredient: cobalt.
Cobalt is an earth metal that makes up about 35 percent of the lithium ion battery mix — the battery used in EVs and smartphones. The battery business makes up 42 percent of the global cobalt demand, and companies such as Tesla, Apple and Google are scrambling to secure as much of the precious metal as possible. Like most things, this is easier said than done.
Cobalt supply is already in a severe deficit and that’s without considering the exponential increase of nearly 500 percent in demand that is to come in the near future with the rise in popularity of EVs. Analysts at Macquarie Research predict that the global deficit for cobalt supply will reach 885 tons this year increasing year-over-year to about 5,340 tons in 2020. That’s a big problem.
Why not just get more cobalt?
The answer is not that simple.
Nearly 60 percent of the planet’s global cobalt supply comes from the tumultuous Democratic Republic of Congo where mining procedures aren’t exactly the portrait of safety. It’s reported that over 40,000 child workers employ the vast cobalt mines of the Congo and the UN estimates that 80 children die per year working in the mines. Among other hazards such as unsupervised and unprotected mining, excessive exposure can cause “cobalt lung” — a form of pneumonia that can lead to long-term respiratory illness and death.
With the extremely hazardous conditions of mines in the Congo going vastly unreported until recently, it is fair to expect that CEOs of tech companies will have to start answering some hard-hitting questions about the ethical sourcing of their cobalt supply.
So what does this all mean?
Well it means several different things depending on who you are.
If you’re an industry giant who consumes mass quantities of cobalt for production, you’re prob
ably looking for alternatives to the Congo. A more homegrown solution to this problem may be U.S. Cobalt. Tesla’s new Gigafactory in Reno, NV, will soon become the largest producer of lithium ion batteries in the world — for that they will need a lot of cobalt, something that may be difficult considering the global competition for this precious metal. Ethically sourced American cobalt could be the answer that Tesla needs.
If you’re an investor at a hedge fund, the cobalt deficit could mean big bucks for you. Several firms have begun buying up large physical amounts of cobalt in a hoarding maneuver. The plan is that they will hold the cobalt supply until demand increases more. The metal is now sold at around $19 per pound — a 50 percent increase since September 2017. Investors will likely sit on the supply until it’s increased to around $25 per pound. Several of these purchasers are the China State Reserve who bought 5,000 tons, and Pala Investments, Ltd. Pala has recently started a $150 million fund to buy more of the Earth’s cobalt supply.
“We have been focused on the evolution of the battery chemistries and this has allowed us to invest early in different components of the battery,” Stephen Gill, managing partner at Zug, Switzerland-based Pala Investments, told Bloomberg. “We hope to continue to be ahead of the curve as technologies evolve.”
For now they certainly are ahead of the curve, but this could potentially be a lucrative position for even the most modest investor. Right now on the Toronto Stock Exchange, U.S. Cobalt (TSX: USCO.V) is trading at around just 42 cents. Investors could quickly snatch up large amounts of stock at a low price, in hopes that the cobalt demand shifts from the Congo to America.
Renowned mathematician Banesh Hoffman said it best, “with every new discovery in science brings with it a host of new problems.” That certainly rings true in the search for an alternative to gas-burning vehicles, where we found a solution, only to discover the dire conditions involved in sourcing it.
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