How Much Cobalt Is Left In The World, Will We Run Out, & What Happens If We Do?

In this guide, we discuss the world’s cobalt resources and reserves.

We outline how much we might have left, if we might run out and when, what might happen if we do, and more.

 

Summary – The World’s Cobalt Resources

Uses For Cobalt, & Why It’s Important

The leading use for cobalt is in lithium-ion batteries, but we list other uses for cobalt across society in the guide below

 

How Much Cobalt Is Left On Earth? – Resources & Reserves

There appears to be more global cobalt resources than reserves at this point in time

This is even when not accounting for huge cobalt resources found on various ocean floors – although, it’s not clear if these resources could be extracted in a feasible or practical way at this point in time

 

Which Country Has The Largest Cobalt Reserves?

Congo (Kinshasa) has the largest cobalt reserves by a significant margin

 

Total Cobalt Production – Per Year

One report indicated that global total cobalt mine production in 2021 was 170,000 metric tons

 

Which Country Produces The Most Cobalt?

Congo (Kinshasa) currently leads cobalt mining production amongst all countries by a significant margin, with China leading production of refined cobalt

 

Cobalt Demand – Per Year

Between 2020 to 2022, total global cobalt demand varied between 130,000 to 195,000 metric tons

 

Are We Running Out Of Cobalt/Will We Run Out Of Cobalt?

It doesn’t appear as though we will run out of cobalt in the short term based on the data available at the moment.

In the medium to long term, several factors could influence whether cobalt starts becoming more scarce, and whether shortages start becoming more common.

 

When Will We Run Out Of Cobalt? How Many Years Worth Of Cobalt Do We Have Left?

In the guide below , we do provide a rough calculation of how many years of cobalt might be left when dividing current reserves by one year of cobalt demand.

There’s also a third party report that indicates that the amount of years worth of cobalt left could be in the millions of years, although it’s worth reading the full report for more information on that claim

 

What Happens If We Run Out Of Cobalt?

If cobalt becomes more scarce, factors like price and availability could be impacted

 

Is Cobalt A Renewable Resource?

Technically it isn’t.

 

Managing Cobalt Resources More Sustainably

In the guide below, we outline several ways we might be able to manage cobalt resources more sustainably across society.

 

Uses For Cobalt Across Society, & Why Cobalt Is Important

The leading use for cobalt is in lithium ion batteries (for different electronics, electric vehicles, and so on)

From usgs.gov: ‘… lithium-ion batteries [are] the leading global use for cobalt … China was the world’s leading consumer of cobalt [in 2020], with more than 80% of its consumption being used by the rechargeable battery industry’

However, cobalt also has a number of other uses across society.

Those uses include but aren’t limited to:

– Cutting tools

Cobalt can be added to cutting tools to give more wear resistance and strength compared to steel 

 

– Alloys

Cobalt can be used in a range of alloys including wear-resistant alloys, superalloys, powder metallurgy, and hard metal.

Cobalt can be combined in alloys with other metals such as chrome, nickel, and tungsten

 

– Coatings & platings

Cobalt can be combined with nickel, zinc and other metals to coat or plate certain surfaces and objects (like steel), to give them more resistance

 

– Magnets

Can be combined with Samarium, to make Samarium Cobalt Magnets. These are permanent magnets

 

– Refining crude oil

Cobalt can be used processes such as desulphurisation where cobalt is used to extract sulphur from crude oil 

 

How Much Cobalt Is Left In The World? – Resources, & Reserves

The amount of global cobalt resources currently appears to be far higher than the reported reserves.

It’s worth considering when looking at cobalt resources and reserves, in terms of the practicality of mining cobalt, from usgs.gov: ‘With the exception of production in Morocco and artisanally mined cobalt in Congo (Kinshasa), most cobalt is mined as a byproduct of copper or nickel.’

So, copper and nickel deposits and mining are a consideration in mining cobalt resources.

 

Resources

Identified world terrestrial cobalt resources are about 25 million tons [and] More than 120 million tons of cobalt resources have been identified in polymetallic nodules and crusts on the floor of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans (usgs.gov)

 

Reserves

[The 2022 USGS Mineral Commodities Summary Report indicates that the latest world cobalt reserves are 7,600,000 metric tons] (usgs.gov)

 

Countries With The Largest Cobalt Reserves

Congo (Kinshasa) has the largest cobalt reserves by a significant margin, with Australia in second

 

From usgs.gov:

[The 2022 USGS Mineral Commodities Summary Report indicates that the countries with the largest cobalt reserves are Congo (Kinshasa) at 3,500,000 metric tons, and Australia at 1,400,000 metric tons] 

[Third and fourth are Indonesia at 600,000, and Cuba at 500,000]

 

Total Cobalt Production – Per Year

[The 2022 USGS Mineral Commodities Summary Report indicates that total cobalt mine production in 2021 was 170,000 metric tons] (usgs.gov)

 

Countries That Produce The Most Cobalt

Congo (Kinshasa) currently leads cobalt mining production amongst all countries by a significant margin.

China is the leading producer of refined cobalt

 

From usgs.gov:

[The 2022 USGS Mineral Commodities Summary Report indicates that Congo (Kinshasa) lead cobalt mine production in 2021 at 120,000 metric tons, with Russia in distant second at 7,600 metric tons]

[To communicate this another way …] Congo (Kinshasa) continued to be the world’s leading source of mined cobalt, supplying more than 70% of world cobalt mine production.

China was the world’s leading producer of refined cobalt, most of which was produced from partially refined cobalt imported from Congo (Kinshasa). 

 

Cobalt Demand – Per Year

Cobalt demand varies year to year

 

… total cobalt demand [could] rise to 195,000 Mt in 2022, up from 132,000 Mt in 2020 and an estimated 170,000 mt in 2021] (mining.com)

 

Cobalt Shortages – Have There Been Recent Shortages, & What Are Some Reasons For Shortages?

Some reports indicate that recently there’s been both years of supply surpluses, as well as deficits (leading to slight shortages).

A major reasons for deficits is the demand of cobalt in lithium ion batteries, electric vehicles, and related technology and products.

Some reports also indicate that current cobalt mining operations are maxxed out in terms of their current production – although this is just one report.

 

Recent Instances Of Supply Surpluses

When analyzing shortages, one thing we can look at is yearly deficits or surpluses in market balance (the difference between demand and supply).

One report indicates that recent years have resulted in a surplus, an expected deficit, and an estimated surplus.

 

From mining.com:

[When comparing supply and demand year by year, in 2020, 2021, and 2022 … the overall cobalt market balance is expected to return to a surplus of 1,000 Mt in 2022, after moving into an estimated deficit of 8,000 mt in 2021 from a surplus of 4,000 Mt in 2020

 

Are We Running Out Of Cobalt, & Will We Run Out Of Cobalt?

There’s no one clear or definitive answer to this question, because it depends on various factors.

In the short term, the data might suggest we won’t run out of cobalt. For example, there’s been supply surpluses in some years recently, and some forecasts indicate surpluses in 2024 as well.

In the medium to long term, whether we run out of cobalt, or whether cobalt becomes more scarce, depends on a range of factors, including but not limited to:

– Whether reserve totals increase or decrease in the future

– Future demand and consumption of cobalt (especially in batteries, sustainable technology and clean energy products)

– Cobalt recycling may be one option among several options in the future that takes the burden off having to extract new cobalt reserves from the ground

– Plus, other reasons and factors

 

Some future forecasts indicate that after 2025, we may have issues wth deficits and supply shortages in comparison to demand.

 

Future Forecasts Of Supply Surpluses & Deficits

From mining.com: A stronger supply ramp-up through to 2024 will sustain a market surplus during the period …

 

From frontiergroup.org: … based on operational mines and projected demand, forecasters predict that supply won’t be able to keep up with demand by 2030, or even as early as 2025 …

 

When Will We Run Out Of Cobalt? How Many Years Worth Of Cobalt Do We Have Left?

Using the reserve data and yearly demand data above, 7,600,000 metric tons (reserves) divided by 170,000 metric tons (estimated demand in 2021) = 44.7 years of cobalt left

This calculation is not to be considered definitive or accurate in any way though.

Many factors can influence the number of years of cobalt that w might have remaining.

 

We are sometimes told nickel and cobalt resources will run out within the next half century based on current production rates and consumption rates.

But, Tim Worstall presents a different estimate:

‘[We have about] 800,000 years of nickel left (assuming no recycling) and 34 million of cobalt.’

You can read more about Tim’s views and information on mineral supplies in the fee.org resource in the resources list

 

We also discuss why we might never run out of mined resources in this guide.  

 

What Happens If We Run Out Of Cobalt?

Running out of any resource may impact things such as:

– The availability of that resource for the key things we use it for across society

– The price of that resource as it becomes more scarce, and consequently, the affordability of the things we use that resource for 

The price of resources increasing as reserves are depleted is something we mentioned in our guide about why we may not run out of mined resources anytime soon.

 

Is Cobalt Renewable?

Technically cobalt isn’t a renewable resource.

It’s a finite resource that forms/replenishes much slower in nature than the rate we use it.

However, there might be various ways to conserve cobalt resources even though it’s not renewable.

 

Can We Manage Cobalt Resources More Sustainably?

There might be several ways to manage cobalt resources more sustainably, such as:

– Reducing demand and consumption of cobalt where possible, practical and economically feasible

– Secondary uses of products containing cobalt (and extending the life of the cobalt material)

– Recycling and re-using cobalt

– Finding substitutes for cobalt where possible, practical and economically feasible

 

Secondary Uses Of Products Containing Cobalt

Some products like lithium ion batteries that contain cobalt can be put to secondary uses, and this extends the life of the product and the materials that make it up.

On example is lithium ion batteries being used for stationary energy storage and other uses once they’ve finished their useful lifespan in their primary use.

 

Recycling & Re-Using Cobalt

Cobalt is already recycled in some instances, and projections of recycling cobalt in the future may reduce the need for new supply.

However, there can be challenges to metal recycling, and also e-waste recycling (which contains various metals) to consider.

 

In 2021, cobalt contained in purchased scrap represented an estimated 24% of cobalt estimated consumption (usgs.gov)

 

… by 2040, recycled quantities of [metals and minerals like cobalt] from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10%’ (frontiergroup.org)

 

Substitutes For Cobalt

usgs.gov lists some of the potential substitutes for cobalt across different applications, but notes that substitutes might come with some tradeoffs such as a loss in product performance or an increase in cost

One example of a substitute for cobalt in batteries is lithium iron phosphate batteries. 

 

 

Sources

1. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/national-minerals-information-center/mineral-commodity-summaries (accessing the USGS ‘Mineral Commodities Summary Report’)

2. https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-these-six-metals-are-key-to-a-low-carbon-future

3. https://www.mining.com/cobalt-prices-supported-in-2021-expected-to-fall-in-2022-report/

4. https://fee.org/articles/no-were-not-running-out-of-minerals/

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