Despite the decrease in cobalt prices, interest in the battery metal is still riding high, with analysts cautiously optimistic about cobalt production in the coming years.
One of the metal’s main catalysts is excitement about electric vehicles. The lithium-ion batteries that power these cars require lithium, graphite and cobalt, among other raw materials, and demand is expected to keep rising as the shift toward electric vehicles continues.
Given those circumstances, it’s particularly interesting to look at top cobalt production by country. According to the US Geological Survey, global supply decreased slightly in 2020 to 140,000 metric tons (MT) from 144,000 MT the previous year. Read on for a closer look at cobalt supply.
1. Democratic Republic of Congo
Mine production: 95,000 MT
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is by far the world’s largest producer of cobalt, accounting for roughly 60 percent of global production. The country has been the top producer of the metal for some time, even though its output decreased from 100,000 MT in 2019 to 95,000 MT in 2020.
As demand for cobalt rises, increasing attention is being directed at the DRC. However, cobalt mining in the country has been linked to human rights abuses, including child labor. Because of this, in 2017, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) temporarily stopped buying cobalt mined by hand in the DRC. Due to increased concerns about supply, the London Metal Exchange is also taking steps to ensure all the brands listed on the exchange are following responsible sourcing guidelines.
In addition, in 2018, congress in the DRC passed a revised mining law that increased taxes on cobalt, copper and other metals. Most recently, the country set up a new state company to buy and market all artisanal cobalt mined in the DRC with the aim of controlling the entire supply chain and boosting government revenue by having more influence on cobalt prices.
All that said, the DRC is likely to remain key to the cobalt market for the foreseeable future. Glencore (LSE:GLEN,OTC Pink:GLCNF) has interests in two mines in the African country, Katanga and Mutanda. Katanga is set to become the world’s top producer of cobalt, the mining giant says. Mutanda, the current largest cobalt mine in the world, was put on care and maintenance in 2019; however, Glencore is expected to bring the mine back online in 2022.
Mine production: 6,300 MT
Russia’s cobalt production remained flat in 2020, coming in at 6,300 MT.
With concerns about DRC cobalt running high, some automakers are calling for increased electric vehicle battery production in Europe. It’s possible that this push could prompt higher cobalt demand from Russia in the future — the only question is whether the country will be able to keep up. While its cobalt reserves stand at 250,000 MT, Russia is still well behind the DRC in terms of production.
Large Russian miner Norilsk Nickel (OTC Pink:NILSY,MCX:GMKN) produces cobalt and is in the world’s top five producers of the mineral.
Mine production: 5,700 MT
Australia saw a small decrease in cobalt production from 2019 to 2020, with output falling from 5,740 MT to 5,700 MT. Like many other countries on this list, cobalt produced in Australia is a by-product of copper and nickel mining. The country’s nickel mines are located in the western part of the country, mostly around the Kalgoorlie and Leonora regions.
As the DRC becomes increasingly challenging for miners and investors try to divert their interests away from Africa, Australia is another country that’s receiving more attention.
Mine production: 4,700 MT
The Philippines is the fourth largest cobalt producer in the world. The country’s cobalt production slipped from 5,100 MT in 2019 to 4,700 MT in 2020. The Asian country is also a top nickel producer.
The fate of mining in the Philippines was up in the air for awhile as President Rodrigo Duterte and Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu continued to call for a shut off of all mines in the country. For the past few years, Duterte has fiercely opposed the mining industry, as he believes the environmental damage far outweighs any benefits to the economy. And yet, he seemed to have a change of heart in early 2021, lifting a ban on new mine permits in an effort to boost revenues.
Mine production: 3,600 MT
Cuban cobalt production fell in 2020 to 3,600 MT, down from at 3,800 MT in the year prior. The country’s Moa region is home to a joint venture nickel-cobalt operation held by Canadian firm Sherritt International (TSX:S,OTC Pink:SHERF) and General Nickel Company of Cuba.
Moa uses an open-pit mining system to mine lateritic ore, which is processed into mixed sulfides containing nickel and cobalt using high-pressure acid leaching. Cubaniquel, the country’s state-owned nickel miner, is the sole operator of the Che Guevara processing plant at Moa.
Mine production: 3,200 MT
Canada was the sixth largest cobalt producer in the world in 2020, moving up from its eight place position in 2019. As with Australia, Canadian cobalt comes mostly from large nickel and copper mines that produce cobalt as a by-product of their normal operations. Some of these major nickel and copper deposits are Kidds Creek, Sudbury and Raglan.
In the last couple of years, a number of junior miners have rushed to Cobalt, Ontario, to stake land. The site is located near the Quebec border and is known for producing large quantities of silver in the past. Now hopes are high that the area could be a cobalt hot spot. It’s still early days for many of these companies, but if they are successful it’s possible Canada’s cobalt production will rise.
7. Papua New Guinea
Mine production: 2,800 MT
Papua New Guinea has made the list of top cobalt production by country for the third year in a row. In 2020, the small country off the coast of Australia produced 2,800 MT of cobalt as a by-product of nickel production. The country’s main cobalt producer is the Ramu nickel mine near Madang, a joint venture between private company MCC Ramu NiCo (85 percent), Highlands Pacific (ASX:HIG) (8.56 percent) and the Papua New Guinea government (6.44 percent).
In May 2018, Highlands signed a deal to increase its ownership of Ramu to 11.3 percent and reached a C$145 million streaming agreement with Cobalt 27 Capital. In January 2019, Cobalt 27 announced a friendly acquisition of the Australian miner, and in October of that year Cobalt 27 transferred the Ramu stake to Conic Metals (TSXV:NKL), a new company, via an arrangement with Pala Investments.
Mine production: 2,300 MT
China leads the world in refined cobalt production at 70 percent of total global supply. The material it uses comes mostly from the DRC, as the country ranks eighth in terms of unrefined cobalt production.
The Asian nation is also the top consumer of cobalt, with the vast majority going to the country’s rechargeable battery industry.
Mine production: 1,900 MT
Morocco’s cobalt production fell from 2,300 MT in 2019 to 1,900 MT in 2020. Cobalt from Moroccan mines got a lot of attention after major carmaker BMW (OTC Pink:BYMOF,ETR:BMW) announced it will buy cobalt directly from mines in Australia and Morocco to ensure that its supply of battery raw materials is sourced responsibly.
10. South Africa
Mine production: 1,800 MT
South Africa’s cobalt production decreased from 2,100 MT in 2019 to 1,800 MT in 2020. In South Africa, cobalt is mined as a by-product of copper and nickel. One of the operations that produces the battery metal is the Nkomati mine, a joint venture between Russia’s Norilsk Nickel and African Rainbow Minerals (OTC Pink:AFBOF,JSE:ARI).
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
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