American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Urban Mining – No Panacea but Important Piece of the Resource Strategy Puzzle

    Advances in materials science continue to transform the way we use metals and minerals, and in doing so, also change the supply and demand scenarios for many materials.

    As we recently pointed out on the ARPN blog, demand for Cobalt has been soaring thanks to its applications in battery technology and the growing popularity of electronic vehicles.  Meanwhile, supply of Cobalt is fraught with several issues, not least the geographic origin of much of the Cobalt we use today – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a Central African nation rife with conflict.

    Critics have long lamented production conditions in a number of artisanal Cobalt mining operations in the country, which involve unsafe labor conditions, poor environmental standards, triggering many tech companies relying on Cobalt for the production of their products to seek other sources.

    Which in the present climate, is easier said than done.  While there are several promising mining projects in North America and Australia, more than 90 percent of the Cobalt refined in China (which is the largest Cobalt consumer in the world) is sourced from the DRC, which holds the largest known Cobalt reserves on the planet — meaning finding alternative sources of primary Cobalt is a positive development, but no silver bullet.

    Enter Urban Mining.   While it sounds a bit like a hipster term for rummaging through yard sales in the suburbs, the term describes a process that is setting itself up to be a means by which we may be able to further “close the loop” of the circular economy,” which “thrives on sustainability and focuses mainly on refining design production and recycling to ensure that little to no waste results.”

     A recent European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials paper defined the urban mining concept as follows:

    “As waste continues to grow, so does the amount of resources trapped within wasted products, some of them rich in minerals, metals and other valuable materials. Many resource-rich products are consumed and disposed of in urban regions, transforming cities into resource “mines” which could be sourced for secondary resources to be reintegrated back into the supply chain. With this in mind, a variety of formal and informal actors have begun to reclaim value from these urban mines. The process of reclaiming resources from products, buildings and waste is known as urban mining.” 

    A key component of Lithium-ion battery technology, Cobalt is one of the materials that end up in landfills as part of discarded end-of-life electrical and electronic devices, and as such, among others, is a prime candidate for urban mining.

    While recovering tech and precious metals from consumer electronics is fraught with challenges – drawbacks like environmental damage in the process of dissolving circuit boards during metal extraction come to mind – research to improve mining processing techniques and recovery and reclamation of materials are well underway.

     For example, earlier this year, researchers at the International Islamic University Malaysia published their findings on the development of a new way to “extract the lithium and the cobalt that make up the bulk of the metal components of [rechargeable] batteries.”

    Closer to home — in the U.S., that is — there is the current collaboration between the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) and Rio Tinto, one strand of which is exploring better methods of extracting critical metals from eWaste.

    Urban mining will by no means obviate the need for traditional mining and is as such not a panacea for supply woes.  With innovations in the field and concerted efforts to not only improve extraction technologies, but to also develop products and materials in ways that lend themselves to easier reclamation of metals, it does, however, represent a viable opportunity to alleviate pressures – and as such deserves to be factored into any comprehensive mineral resource strategy.

  • Cobalt Demand on the Rise – But What About Supply?

    Once an obscure metal most people had rarely heard about, Cobalt, a co-product of Nickel and Copper, is becoming a hot commodity and is increasingly afforded “critical mineral” status.

    The main reason for this development is Cobalt’s application in Lithium-ion battery technology. Soaring demand for rechargeable batteries and the growing popularity of electric cars have sent the price per ton of Cobalt soaring almost 70 percent this year already – however demand is only one side of the coin.

    For tech giants like Apple and Tesla, which rely heavily on Lithium-ion technology to fuel their products, it is the supply side that is clouding the picture.  Writes Eshe Nelson for Quartz: 

    “Bullish investors have pushed Tesla and Apple stock to record highs, but a steady supply of cobalt will be crucial to making their plans a reality. In part, fears about cobalt’s scarcity are behind the metal’s recent price surge. Cobalt is hard to get a hold of, and the market remains relatively small—93,000 metric tons were produced in 2016.”

    On a global scale, 93 percent of the Cobalt refined in China – the world’s biggest Cobalt consumer – originates in the DRC, which, at 3,400,000 metric tons, is also home to the world’s largest Cobalt reserve.

    Roughly 62 percent of global refined Cobalt is sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where production conditions involving involve child labor and poor environmental standards in some instances, have not only invited sharp criticism, but have prompted tech companies to re-evaluate their sourcing strategies.   In March, Apple announced a temporary halt of cobalt purchases from artisanal mines in the DRC, while Elon Musk has made ambitious claims that Tesla will “produce 500,000 electric vehicles a year by 2018,” and that the Cobalt used “will be sourced exclusively in North America.”

    Caspar Rawles, analyst for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, puts it bluntly:

     “While there are a number of new cobalt projects being developed around the world, quite simply: there will be no electric vehicle industry without DRC cobalt.” 

    Going forward, our friends at Benchmark predict a very tight market for Cobalt through 2020, at which point we will likely see a deficit.  Meanwhile, political unrest in the context of the DRC’s upcoming election may add uncertainty to the supply picture.

    So while the United States will in all likelihood not be able to meet its Cobalt needs self-sufficiently, domestic projects coming online are welcome developments to alleviate pressures and concerns, and should be part of a comprehensive overall mineral resource strategy for the United States.

  • Cobalt – First Steps Towards Reducing Mineral Resource Dependencies?

    A recent piece for InvestorIntel zeroes in on a metal which, due to its growing use in battery technology, coupled with a challenging supply scenario is increasingly afforded “critical mineral” status – Cobalt. A co-product of Nickel and Copper, the metal’s recent history, as author Lara Smith argues, has been “chaotic.” ARPN agrees that about sums it up. Criticism regarding the [...]
  • As Resource Dependence Deepens, Miners Pivot Back to U.S. For Exploration

    Against the backdrop of market prices recovering and supply woes looming, mining companies are expected to increase spending on exploration for the first time in five years, reports news agency Reuters. In what may spell good news for the United States, analysts anticipate the biggest expenditure increases to occur in the United States, Canada and Australia, all [...]
  • McGroarty on Critical Minerals: “It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Infrastructure”

    The New Year is now a little over a week old and the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States is just around the corner.  And while some are still dwelling on 2016 (we offered our post mortem at the end of the year), the time has come to look at what’s in store. One of [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Cobalt – A Critical Mineral Under Scrutiny

    A lustrous, silvery blue, hard ferromagnetic, brittle element, Cobalt’s physical properties are similar to Iron and Nickel. It forms various compounds, stable in air and unaffected by water.  Main uses include many alloys, including superalloys used in aircraft engine parts and high-speed steels, as well as magnets, and catalysts, to name but a few. It’s [...]
  • Is Cobalt on Your Radar Yet?

    Last week, we highlighted what has been one of the bright spots in the metals and minerals sphere in recent months – Lithium.  Potentially one of the most important critical materials of our time because of its application in battery technology, its rise to stardom has cast a shadow on another material that may be [...]
  • Critical mineral Cobalt to become even more indispensable?

    New research from Swiss scientists indicates that Cobalt’s applications in solar technology may spark a surge in demand. While it is certainly not as visible in the news as the oft-discussed Rare Earths, the fact that Cobalt has to be considered a critical mineral is not a secret. In 2011, it was one of only [...]
  • The case for cobalt: Why America should pay attention to this critical metal

    In an interview with The Critical Metals Report, analyst Rick Mills shares his thoughts on how cobalt is the “king of critical metals.” Increasingly indispensable as an industrial metal, in the development of green technologies, and in various critical defense applications, cobalt is one of only four metals or element groups to make all three recently [...]