Dodgy cobalt supply – the type associated with child labour and inhumane working conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo – won’t cut the mustard for much longer.

Carmakers, battery manufacturers, and even metal exchanges are taking steps to weed out unethical cobalt supply from their supply chains.

The London Metal Exchange (LME) has announced an initiative to combat child labour, money laundering, bribery and corruption.  Some carmakers are working on schemes which would allow them to work directly with artisanal (or small scale) miners, like this blockchain project between Ford and IBM.

Then last week BMW announced it would be bypassing the DRC — which controls more than two-thirds of supply — altogether.

The carmaker reckons the cobalt used in its next-generation electric vehicles will come from Australia and Morocco.

But this strategy isn’t just about ethics.

Carmakers are recognising they need to reduce long term price and supply risk for all critical battery minerals, says Caspar Rawles, cobalt analyst at Benchmark Minerals Intelligence.

“The DRC is a high risk jurisdiction itself with human rights/environmental issues around artisanal mining, which is a key issue,” he told Stockhead.

“But for any commodity, depending on one nation presents significant supply risk, so even without the additional problems presented by the DRC this is something automakers would want to avoid.”


Carmakers are buying direct from the (non-DRC) source

But BMW isn’t just snubbing the DRC – it’s are also securing direct contracts with miners like Glencore, which will provide the carmaker with cobalt from its Murrin Murrin mine in Australia.

Carmakers moving this far up the  supply chain is a pretty recent phenomenon.


There’s speculation that Japanese car and battery makers Toyota, Honda and Panasonic were considering a joint venture to secure cobalt for EV batteries.

In February, Ford said major carmakers were even flirting with direct investment in cobalt miners, so it has a stable, long term supply of the EV battery ingredient.

Rawles says automakers are now looking to reduce long term supply risk — but attempts to move cobalt dependency away from the DRC presents a problem.

“72 per cent of the world’s cobalt came from the DRC last year and all major capacity expansions that we are seeing currently are happening within the DRC, so that number is set to grow,” Rawles says.

“I think the reality is that it will be very challenging for a major Western automaker to secure the volumes of cobalt they will need for the EV ramp up without some portion coming from the DRC.”

For example, combined Australia and Morocco cobalt production was 5000 tonnes in 2018, which is enough to produce about 350,000 electric vehicles.

To put that into perspective, the BMW Group sold about 2.5 million vehicles in 2018. By 2025,  the company says 25 per cent of its global sales will be pure electric or plug-in hybrid.

You don’t have to be a genius to figure this one out.

This doesn’t take into account hybrid models or projected reductions in the amount of cobalt used per battery … so maybe it does take a genius.

But it’s good news for non-DRC miners and advanced explorers; their supply will be in high demand from those automakers, like BMW, who are diversifying away from the DRC.

“Which of course will mean those producers should be able to achieve the higher end of prices (relative to the current market),” Rawles says.

BMW will have potentially paid a premium for this material compared with the price they could have achieved by sourcing DRC cobalt hydroxide, he says.

“In addition, automakers will find as they try to secure metal units from non-DRC production, for conversion to cobalt chemicals for the battery supply chain, they will be competing more and more with other cobalt industries such as superalloys who are less price sensitive than the battery industry.”

Automakers are aware of the need to secure upstream metal supplies to meet their (often pretty ambitious) future EV targets, says Rawles.

It’s generally accepted that we have enough cobalt until about 2022/2023; then things get hairy for battery makers and EV manufacturers.

This is when oversupply will turn into a supply deficit, so it makes economic sense for carmakers to move up the supply chain and ensure security of supply while prices are low.

The good news for non-DRC miners and advanced explorers — their supply will be in high demand from those automakers who are diversifying away from the DRC.

“I think now the majority of Westerns automakers are taking the issues in battery supply chains seriously, although this is a relatively recent development,” Rawles says.

“We have seen more activity in the last 12-18 months, with a few exceptions who are more advanced.”

Which Australian cobalt projects are next in line?

When the price of cobalt plummeted from the second half of 2018, so did investor interest in small cap cobalt plays. Many of these explorers have either put their respective cobalt projects on ice or dumped them altogether in favour of something more investor friendly, like gold.

But there’s still a few advanced Australian projects which are well placed. Not only will they be able to cash in on the projected supply shortfall when it comes; they will be well positioned to satisfy demand for non-DRC cobalt.

Panoramic Resources’ (ASX:PAN) WA-based Savannah  mine  could supply 10,800 tonnes of nickel, 6100 tonnes of copper, and 800 tonnes of cobalt each year once it ramps up.

Australian Mines (ASX:AUZ) wants to kick off construction at its massive Sconi battery metals project in Queensland this year, with the first nickel-cobalt exports to Korean offtake partner SK Innovations’ European EV battery plant slated for 2022.

Following a 2-year construction period — followed by a 2-year ramp up — the $1 billion processing plant will produce 9,898 tonnes of cobalt sulphate and 70,894 tonnes of nickel sulphate each year.

Clean TeQ (ASX:CLQ) is aiming for first production in 2021 at its advanced Sunrise nickel-cobalt project in New South Wales. The project is fully permitted and development ready. At full production, Sunrise would deliver 19,620 tonnes of nickel and 4,420 tonnes of cobalt each year for the first 10 years.

And Jervois Mining (ASX:JRV) is merging with eCobalt Solutions and M2 Cobalt to establish itself as a bigger cobalt player with greater scale, liquidity and diversification. The tie-up will give Jervois a pipeline of cobalt projects in Australia, East Africa and the US.