Cobalt’s Chemistry Experiment – by David Fickling (Bloomberg News – September 28, 2017)

All batteries are not created equal. The 53 kilowatt-hour pack on a 2008 Tesla Inc. Roadster contains an estimated 38 kilograms of cobalt, a key element that some analysts fear may be running out. The same-sized battery on a 2017 Tesla would have about one-eighth of that, or 4.8 kilograms.

That’s the best reason to be wary of predictions that cobalt is heading toward permanently higher prices north of $100,000 a metric ton. The complex chemistry on which rechargeable batteries depends offers myriad opportunities to economize on any material that gets too costly.

Cobalt is a crucial ingredient for manufacturing most lithium-ion cathodes — the “positive” ends of the cell, equivalent to the nipple atop a conventional AAA battery. Demand for such cathodes is set to soar as the world’s vehicle fleet shifts from petroleum to electrical drive-trains, and as utilities build farms of rechargeable batteries to stabilize renewables-intensive power grids.

As a result, cobalt prices have been soaring. Over the course of 2016, Metal Bulletin’s quoted price jumped almost 50 percent from $10.30 a pound to $14.70/lb. Since then, it’s more than doubled to $29.85/lb, or $65,808 a ton.Part of this is due to cobalt’s risky supply situation.

Half of global production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which despite its name has never held a fully credible election and where a civil war has driven almost a million people from their homes over the past year. Of that, an amount equivalent to perhaps 10 percent of global output comes from low-tech artisanal mines where child labor is common.

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