How EV batteries sparked a cobalt frenzy

Mark Burton
Bloomberg News

Cobalt left other metals in the dust this year, driven by demand from electric carmakers like Tesla Inc .But with new supply coming online and high prices likely to spur substitution and recycling, the market for the key battery component could prove choppier next year.

Here are five themes that will capture the market’s attention in 2018.

Record prices: After prices more than tripled in the past two years, cobalt has become a valuable prize for the handful of miners producing it at scale. The global market hasincreased from about $4 billion a year at the end of 2016 to about $8 billion now and is roughly equal in size to the tin market.

But cobalt could be set to level out in 2018. BMO Capital Markets sees prices averaging about $68,200 a ton from about $72,000 now as Glencore Plc and Eurasian Resources Group ramp up major new projects in 2018 and 2019.

New supply: Because cobalt’s mainly mined as a byproduct of copper and nickel, higher prices don’t tend to stimulate new supply in the way they would in other commodity markets. But with cobalt delivering major windfalls,producers are doing their best to ramp up output.

The larger-than-expected expansion at Glencore’s Katanga project, in particular, looks set to delay the onset of a shortage that many analysts see emerging as usage in electric vehicles starts to spike toward the end of the decade.

Supply contracts: That’s likely to leave cobalt consumers nervous about long-term supplies. Glencore boss Ivan Glasenberg confirmed the miner’s already in talks with buyers including Tesla and Volkswagen AG, and those negotiations are likely to progress with urgency next year as the automakers move forward with ambitious plans to roll out mass-market electric vehicles.

Demand from automakers in China also looks set to rise amid a surge in electric vehicle sales. Orders for battery-powered automobiles were up 51 percent at 609,000 in the first 11 months of the year, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance says sales could surpass 1 million next year, almost equal to this year’s global total.

Carmakers hunting long-term supplies may be more willing to link sales to floating spot prices. Volkswagenasked producers to supply cobalt at a fixed price in a long-term tender in September, but has sincerelaxed its demand , according to people familiar with the matter.

Easing sales constraints may help bridge the divide between consumers wanting long-term supply and miners worried about leaving money on the table. “There are a lot of customers who want to lock in a supply, but, naturally, we will keep the price floating,” Glasenberg said on an investor call this week.

Recycling, substitution: Automakers are looking for ways to use less cobalt because of soaring prices, Colin Hamilton, managing director for commodities research at BMO Capital Markets, said by phone from London. “Battery chemistry won’t change overnight, but given how the price has moved, automakers are definitely going to be leaning on the battery industry to push substitution.” At the same time, recycling firms will be looking to recover more cobalt from used batteries. Cobalt from lithium-ion batteries could reach 22,500 tons in 2025, up from 8,700 tons in 2017, according to Creation Inn, a London-based research firm focused on energy storage and recycling.