by Mike Devine
For a variety of reasons, one of the materials that goes into permanent magnets has been getting much more expensive lately. It is not one of the rare earth that made headlines a few years ago for price spikes. It isn’t even sourced from China.
The material is Cobalt, a strong magnetic element that is primarily sourced from the Republic of Congo. Political instability has historically influenced the price of cobalt ore. In fact, it was price spikes and political instability in the late 1970s that spurred interest in developing a non-Cobalt permanent magnet: Neodymium-Iron-Boron.
The price of Cobalt has jumped from US$270 per kilogram at the start of 2017 to US$676 per kilogram as of April 2018. Prices are expected to rise considerably for the near- to mid-term.
The current situation involves two factors. The first is a new round of political instability due to corruption concerns. The second is new applications that use Cobalt. The most note-worthy application is lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Current battery technologies require cobalt as part of the cathode. Given the growing popularity of electric vehicles, demand for cobalt continues to increase. Near-term trends suggest demand will outstrip supply, thus increased prices.
It’s unwise to predict what will happen to Cobalt pricing in the long-term. As is often the case, price spikes due to increased demand can spur innovation. The last time something like this happened, Neodymium-Iron-Boron was invented. There are initiatives to produce magnets with less cobalt as well as changes to battery construction that will use less cobalt. Time will tell, but it is likely to be a roller coaster ride in the short term.
For more interesting reading about Cobalt, try https://techcrunch.com/2017/01/01/no-cobalt-no-tesla/ and https://www.cobaltinstitute.org/core-applications.html.