Demand for cobalt has soared in the past year as investors expect inexorable growth in the global electric vehicle industry to generate a supply squeeze this year following several years of surplus production.
As recently as 2005, electric vehicles globally could be counted in the mere hundreds yet already by 2015 the number had swollen to 1.26 million, according to a report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) published in 2016.
And that’s just the very beginning, with the supranational Electric Vehicles Initiative calling for an electric car fleet of 20 million by 2020 and the Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility and Climate Change and Call to Action setting a global deployment target of 100 million electric cars and 400 million electric 2- and 3-wheelers by 2030.
China has been leading the charge with an estimated stock of 200 million units and tight restrictions on conventional vehicles in several cities to reduce local pollution.
Cobalt, a key component of the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars, saw its futures price close at $55,270 per metric ton on Thursday, marking an 154 percent jump from the metal’s all-time low reached in February 2016.
The higher prices should continue on the back of strong demand from China, according to Rebecca Charlton, chief financial officer (CFO) of China Molybdenum (CMOC), a listed Chinese natural resources company which now controls 15 percent of the cobalt market after recent acquisitions, namely in the Republic of Congo.
“Obviously there’s huge buzz around the electric car space but I think what’s interesting in China is they’re looking at the electric-led automobile as going beyond cars and into public transport so if you think about the number of large population cities in China you get into some really interesting dynamics from that perspective,” Charlton told CNBC at the Platts Global Metals Awards on Thursday.
As of 2015, China had the largest global fleet of electric buses, with over 170,000 already in circulation.
The supply crunch has been exacerbated by a decrease in recent years in production from countries such as Australia, Russia and Zambia and little in the way of new projects to replace the lost output. The Republic of Congo is now the largest known source of cobalt, however, geopolitical risk within the country is seen increasing as the country prepares for a transfer of presidential power in 2018.