Demand for cobalt rises as more automakers turn focus to electric vehicles

October 16, 2017

As the market for electric vehicles batteries has grown so to as demand for cobalt, which has experienced a price jump of more than 80 percent this year. 

The demand is so high that Volkswagen, one of the largest carmakers in the world, has struggled to secure long-term supplies for the metal it needs for it electric vehicles.

The Financial Times reported that Volkswagen issued a tender in September seeking a minimum of five years of supply of cobalt at a fixed price, according to people familiar with the process, but struggled to find any takers.

“They’re being arrogant because they’re automotive and they’re used to doing it,” one trader said. “They completely misjudged the contents of the tender. There’s no point negotiating — it’s not even a discussion point.”

The pushback is a sign of the difficulties carmakers face securing long-term supplies of battery raw materials as they gear up to produce electric vehicles for the mass market.

Electric vehicle batteries require much larger quantities of raw materials than those found in smartphones and iPads. That is challenging small markets for lithium and cobalt, which have seen dramatic price rises.

More than 60 per cent of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has raised fears among automakers over security of supply. The DRC’s president Joseph Kabila has not set a date for elections, after he failed to step down before a deadline last December.

Cobalt production in the DRC is dominated by a handful of producers including Glencore and China Molybdenum. Outside the large companies, cobalt is mined by hand before it is collected and sent to China. Last year Amnesty International said that process often involved child labor.

“A secure and sustainable supply of raw materials for the Li-ion [lithium ion] battery will be the key factor to become e-mobility market leader,” VW said in the tender, a copy of which was seen by the Financial Times.

The original deadline for the tender was the end of September, which was then extended until this month.

Tesla Motors and BMW is also said to be looking for supplies of cobalt, according to people in the market, though no formal tenders have been issued.

VW Group, whose 12 brands include Porsche, Audi, Skoda and Bentley, has pledged to spend €70 billion to electrify 300 models by 2030. It aims to be the biggest producer of electric vehicles by 2025.

While it did not give a specific amount of cobalt required, based on the tender it would need 80 kt to 130 kt (88,000 to 143,000 st) of cobalt, one trader said. The current market is just over 100 kt/a (110,000 stpy).

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