The supply of cobalt for the green transition is challenged

Published 13-05-2022

Cobalt is a key raw material in the production of batteries for i.a. electric vehicles and is therefore critical for the green transition. The Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) has participated in a study published in Nature Communications, which shows that the supply of cobalt is challenged. The study also shows that progress in recycling and the development of batteries with less or no cobalt can significantly limit long-term cobalt supply risks, but that in the short- to medium-term there will be a need to increase mining production of cobalt in order to electrify the transport sector.

The green transition requires an increase in the production of a long range of raw materials. This presents a challenge in ensuring future supply. The transport sector is especially challenged because it is dependent on large amounts of minerals for batteries – i.a. cobalt. The global demand for cobalt has increased by more than five times between 1995 and 2019 and almost half of the total cobalt use in 2019 was for batteries. The increase in demand is expected to continue because of the rapid uptake of electric vehicles as an alternative to those driven by petrol or diesel. Therefore, there is a strong focus on how to avoid a shortage of i.a. cobalt for the green transition.

New study is the most comprehensive of its kind so far

Researchers from the Center for Minerals and Materials (MiMa) in GEUS have participated in a new study, recently published in Nature Communications, which investigates the security of supply of cobalt. The study is based on a material flow analysis led by a research group from University of Southern Denmark and examines whether progress in recycling and technological development can be decisive in addressing supply risks for cobalt up to year 2050.

The study simulates the future supply and demand of cobalt and establishes seven scenarios, which take into account different battery technologies, progress in recycling, and varying battery lifetime. In addition, the study investigates regional differences in supply security, where the US and EU have transferred part of the supply challenge of cobalt to specially China by outsourcing the battery production.

“This is not the first study to look at the challenges connected to the supply security of cobalt – but it’s the most detailed so far. Among other things because of the seven scenarios that we have presented, which makes it a very comprehensive study,” says Jakob Kløve Keiding, Head of Center for MiMa.

The primary cobalt supply has to be increased

The main conclusion of the study is that the development of battery types with less or not cobalt as well as development in recycling are both important strategies to avoid a shortage of cobalt – and in the long term (approaching year 2050) they will play a significant role. But the study also shows that in the short to medium term (between year 2028 and 2033) the cobalt supply shortage appears inevitable, even under the most technologically optimistic scenario.

“This might seem surprising,” says Juan Tan, researcher in MiMa, “but it’s due to the fact that implementing these measures takes time, combined with the fact that the rapid uptake of electric vehicles requires large amounts of minerals already now.”

Therefore, it is necessary to increase the production of cobalt to meet the global ambitions for electric transportation. The study highlights the necessity of increasing the primary cobalt supply, i.e. from mining, while also creating progress in recycling and developing new battery technologies.

“We have to acknowledge that increasing the primary production of cobalt is completely essential in order to complete the green transition. Unfortunately, it’s an issue which is often overlooked when we talk about how to reach our carbon reduction goals, even though it’s a prerequisite for the technologies that need to be implemented,” says Jakob Kløve Keiding. He continues:

“There are a lot of bottlenecks in the supply of minerals for batteries, which are not only related to the extraction capacity. The supply chains are complex and vulnerable and there are profound problems with the extraction of cobalt, which to a large extend takes place in DR Congo under highly objectionable social and environmental conditions. In addition, cobalt is often extracted as a byproduct of kobber and nickel, which makes cobalt closely connected to the production and price fluctuations of these two metals.”

In order to map out and get a better understanding of the supply challenges, researchers from MiMa are currently working on an extensive analysis of the supply chains for the battery minerals cobalt and lithium – all the way from mineral investigation to end product and recycling. The new study will be published later this year.

Jakob Kløve Keiding
Chief Consultant
Mapping and Mineral Resources
Juan Tan
Mapping and Mineral Resources

Scientific article

Zeng, A., Chen, W., Rasmussen, K.D. et al. Battery technology and recycling alone will not save the electric mobility transition from future cobalt shortages. Nat Commun 13, 1341 (2022).