Monday 25th September 2017

Resource Clips


Posts tagged ‘china’

Crucial commodities

September 8th, 2017

Price/supply concerns draw end-users to Commerce Resources’ rare earths-tantalum-niobium projects

by Greg Klein

“One of the things that really galls me is that the F-35 is flying around with over 900 pounds of Chinese REEs in it.”

That typifies some of the remarks Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE president Chris Grove hears from end-users of rare earths and rare metals. Steeply rising prices for magnet feed REEs and critical minerals like tantalum—not to mention concern about stable, geopolitically friendly sources—have brought even greater interest in the company’s two advanced projects, the Ashram rare earths deposit in northern Quebec and the Blue River tantalum-niobium deposit in southeastern British Columbia. Now Commerce has a list of potential customers and processors waiting for samples from both properties.

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F-35 fighter jets alongside the USS America:
Chinese rare earths in action.
(Photo: Lockheed Martin)

Of course with China supplying over 90% of the world’s REEs, governments and industries in many countries have cause for concern. Tantalum moves to market through sometimes disturbingly vague supply lines, with about 37% of last year’s production coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo and 32% from Rwanda, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One company in Brazil, CBMM, produces about 85% of the world’s niobium, another critical mineral.

As Ashram moves towards pre-feasibility, Commerce has a team busy getting a backlog of core to the assay lab. But tantalum and niobium, the original metals of interest for Commerce, have returned to the fore as well, with early-stage exploration on the Quebec property and metallurgical studies on the B.C. deposit.

The upcoming assays will come from 14 holes totalling 2,014 metres sunk last year, mostly definition drilling. Initial geological review and XRF data suggest significant intervals in several holes, including a large stepout to the southeast, Grove’s team reports.

“We’re always excited to see this project’s drilling results,” he says. “We know we’re in carbonatite basically all of the time and over the last five years, in all the 9,200 metres we’ve done since the last resource calculation, we’ve basically always hit more material than was modelled in the original resource—i.e. we’ve always found less waste rock at surface, we’ve always hit material in the condemnation holes and we’ve always had intersections of higher-grade material. So all those things look exciting for this program.”

Carbonatite comprises a key Ashram distinction. The deposit sits within carbonatite host rock and the minerals monazite, bastnasite and xenotime, which are well understood in commercial REE processing. That advantage distinguishes Ashram from REE hopefuls that foundered over mineralogical challenges. Along with resource size, mineralogy has Grove confident of Ashram’s potential as a low-cost producer competing with China.

As for size, a 2012 resource used a 1.25% cutoff to show:

  • measured: 1.59 million tonnes averaging 1.77% total rare earth oxides

  • indicated: 27.67 million tonnes averaging 1.9% TREO

  • inferred: 219.8 million tonnes averaging 1.88% TREO

A near-surface—sometimes at-surface—deposit, Ashram also features strong distribution of neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium, all critical elements and some especially costly. Neodymium and dysprosium prices have shot up 80% this year.

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Commerce Resources’ field crew poses at the Eldor property,
home to the Ashram deposit and Miranna prospect.

Comparing Ashram’s inferred gross tonnage of nearly 220 million tonnes with the measured and indicated total of less than 30 million tonnes, Grove sees considerable potential to bolster the M&I as well as increase the resource’s overall size and average grade.

This season’s field program includes prospecting in the Miranna area about a kilometre from the deposit. Miranna was the site of 2015 boulder sampling that brought “spectacular” niobium grades up to 5.9% Nb2O5, nearly twice the average grade of the world’s largest producer, CBMM’s Araxá mine, Grove says. Some tantalum standouts showed 1,220 ppm and 1,040 ppm Ta2O5. Significant results for phosphate and rare earth oxides were also apparent.

Should Miranna prove drill-worthy, the synergies with Ashram would be obvious.

That’s the early-stage aspect of Commerce’s tantalum-niobium work. In B.C. the company’s Blue River deposit reached PEA in 2011, with a resource update in 2013. Based on a tantalum price of $381 per kilo, the estimate showed:

  • indicated: 48.41 million tonnes averaging 197 ppm Ta2O5 and 1,610 ppm Nb2O5 for 9.56 million kilograms Ta2O5 and 77.81 kilograms Nb2O5

  • inferred: 5.4 million tonnes averaging 191 ppm Ta2O5 and 1,760 ppm Nb2O5 for 1 million kilograms Ta2O5 and 9.6 million kilograms Nb2O5

Actually that should be 1,300 kilograms less. That’s the size of a sample on its way to Estonia for evaluation by Alexander Krupin, an expert in processing high-grade tantalum and niobium concentrates. “As with Ashram, we’ve already found that standard processing works well for Blue River,” Grove points out. “However, if Krupin’s proprietary method proves even more efficient, why wouldn’t we look at it?”

We’re always excited to see this project’s drilling results. We know we’re in carbonatite basically all of the time and over the last five years, in all the 9,200 metres we’ve done since the last resource calculation, we’ve basically always hit more material than was modelled in the original resource.—Chris Grove,
president of Commerce Resources

Back to rare earths, Commerce signed an MOU with Ucore Rare Metals TSXV:UCU to assess Ashram material for a proprietary method of selective processing. Others planning to test proprietary techniques on Ashram include Texas Mineral Resources and K-Technologies, Rare Earth Salts, Innovation Metals Corp, the University of Tennessee and NanoScience Solutions at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Should proprietary methods work, all the better, Grove states. But he emphasizes that standard metallurgical tests have already succeeded, making a cheaper process unnecessary for both Blue River and Ashram.

Potential customers show interest too. Concentrate sample requests have come from Solvay, Mitsubishi, Treibacher, BASF, DKK, Albemarle, Blue Line and others covered by non-disclosure agreements. Requests have also come for samples of fluorspar, a potential Ashram byproduct and another mineral subject to rising prices and Chinese supply dominance.

A solid expression of interest came from the province too, as Ressources Québec invested $1 million in a February private placement. The provincial government corporation describes itself as focusing “on projects that have good return prospects and foster Quebec’s economic development.”

Also fostering the mining-friendly jurisdiction’s economic development is Plan Nord, which has pledged $1.3 billion to infrastructure over five years. The provincial road to Renard helped make Stornoway Diamond’s (TSX:SWY) mine a reality. Other projects that would benefit from a road extension towards Ashram would be Lac Otelnuk, located 80 kilometres south. The Sprott Resource Holdings TSX:SRHI/WISCO JV holds Canada’s largest iron ore deposit. Some projects north of Ashram include the Kan gold-base metals project of Barrick Gold TSX:ABX and Osisko Mining TSX:OSK, as well as properties held by Midland Exploration TSXV:MD.

But, Grove says, it’s rising prices and security of supply that have processors and end-users metaphorically beating a path to his company’s door. And maybe nothing demonstrates the criticality of critical minerals better than a nearby superpower that relies on a geopolitical rival for commodities essential to national defence.

Robert Friedland talks copper, zinc, PGMs and China’s “airpocalypse”

August 28th, 2017

…Read more

Robert Friedland’s favourites

July 28th, 2017

Unprecedented demand calls for unparalleled grades, the industry legend says

by Greg Klein

For all that’s being said about lithium and cobalt, Robert Friedland argues that the energy revolution also depends on copper and platinum group elements. Of course he has a stake in them himself, with Kamoa-Kakula and Platreef among his current enthusiasms. Still, whether motivated by self-interest or not, the mining titan whom Rick Rule calls “serially successful” presented a compelling case for his favourite metals at the Sprott Natural Resource Symposium in Vancouver on July 25.

We’re living in “an era of unprecedented change,” said Ivanhoe Mines’ TSX:IVN founding chairperson. China’s the main cause. That country’s “breeding mega-cities prodigiously.” But one result is “incredibly toxic air… with a whole suite of health effects” from heart attacks to stroke, asthma to Alzheimer’s.

Unprecedented demand calls for unparalleled grades, the industry legend says

A crew operates jumbo rigs to bring
Ivanhoe’s Platreef mine into PGM production.

China’s not alone. Friedland pegs current global population growth at 83 million a year, with a projected 8.5 billion people populating the planet by 2030. Five billion will inhabit urban areas. Forecasts for 2050 show 6.3 billion city-dwellers. But China, notorious for its poisoned atmosphere, “is on an air pollution jihad.” It’s an all-out effort to turn back the “airpocalypse” and, with a command economy, a goal that shall be achieved.

The main target will be the internal combustion engine, responsible for about 60% of urban air pollution, Friedland said. China now manufactures 19 million cars annually, he adds. The country plans to increase output to 60 million, a goal obviously contrary to the war on pollution unless it emphasizes electric vehicles.

Like others, Friedland sees massive disruption as the economics of EVs overtake those of internal combustion engines, a scenario he expects by 2022 or 2023.

Demand for lithium-ion batteries (comprising 4% lithium, 80% nickel sulphate and 15% cobalt) has sent cobalt prices soaring. But bigger EVs will likely rely on hydrogen fuel cells, he pointed out. They’re already used in electric SUVs, pickup trucks, double-decker buses in London, trains in Germany and China, and, expected imminently, autonomous air taxis in Dubai.

Hydrogen fuel cells need PGMs. If only one-tenth of China’s planned EV output used the technology, demand would call for the world’s entire platinum supply, Friedland said.

“I would rather own platinum than gold,” he declared. Additionally, “there’s no platinum central reserve bank to puke out platinum.”

Ivanhoe just happens to have PGMs, about 42 million ounces indicated and 52.8 million ounces inferred, at its 64%-held Platreef project in South Africa.

Unprecedented demand calls for unparalleled grades, the industry legend says

Underground development progresses at the Kansoko mine,
part of the Kamoa copper deposit and adjacent to Kakula.

Electricity for the grid also ranks high among China’s airpocalyptic priorities. A study produced for the United Nations Environment Programme credits the country with a 17% increase in renewable electricity investment last year, most of it going to wind and solar. Almost $103 billion, China’s renewables investment comes to 36% of the world total.

Just as EVs remain more copper-dependent than internal combustion, wind and solar call for much more of the conductive commodity than do other types of electricity generation. Friedland sees additional disruptive demand in easily cleaned copper surfaces now increasingly used in hospitals, care homes, cruise ships and other places where infectious diseases might lurk.

He sees a modest copper supply deficit now, with a crisis possibly starting as soon as 2019. The world needs a new generation of copper mines, he said, repeating his unkind comparison of today’s low-grade, depleting mines to “little old ladies waiting to die.” The world’s largest producer, the BHP Billiton NYSE:BHP/Rio Tinto NYSE:RIO Escondida mine in Chile, is down to a 0.52% grade.

Copper recently hit a two-year high of about $6,400 a tonne. But, citing Bernstein data, Friedland said new mines would require a $12,000 price.

Not Kamoa-Kakula, though. He proudly noted that, with an indicated resource grading 6.09%, it hosts “the richest conceivable copper deposit on this planet.”

I’ve never been as bullish in my 35 years on a project.—Robert Friedland

A JV with Ivanhoe and Zjin Mining Group each holding 39.6% and the DRC 20%, Kamoa-Kakula inspires “a plethora of superlatives.” The veteran of Voisey’s Bay and Oyu Tolgoi added, “I’ve never been as bullish in my 35 years on a project.”

The zillionaire likes zinc too, which his company also has in the DRC at the 68%-held Kipushi project. With a measured and indicated grade of 34.89%, the Big Zinc zone more than doubles the world’s next-highest-grade zinc project, according to Ivanhoe. There’s copper too, with three other zones averaging an M&I grade of 4.01%.

“Everything good in the Congo starts with a ‘K’,” he said enthusiastically.

But recklessly, in light of the DRC’s controversial Kabila family. In June Ivanhoe was hit by reports that the company has done deals with businesses held by the president’s brother, Zoe Kabila, although no allegations were made of wrongdoing.

The family has run the country, one of Africa’s poorest, since 1997. Current president Joseph Kabila has been ruling unconstitutionally since November, a cause of sometimes violent protest that threatens to further destabilize the DRC.

As the New York Times reported earlier this month:

An implosion of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country almost the size of western Europe, could spill into and involve some of the nine countries it borders. In the late 1990s, neighbouring countries were sucked into what became known as the Great War of Africa, which resulted in several million deaths.

Friedland’s nearly hour-long address made no mention of jurisdictional risk. But the audience of hundreds, presumably most of them retail investors, responded warmly to the serial success story. He’s the one who, after Ivanhoe languished at five-year lows in early 2016, propelled the stock more than 300% over the last 12 months.

About time: BCSC warns investors of “Vancouver Stock Exchange”

July 20th, 2017

by Greg Klein | July 20, 2017

Juniors, brokers, promoters desert Toronto to revive the Vancouver Stock Exchange

Better late than never, a warning sign
stands guard outside the former VSE building.

Whether inspired by a death wish or sheer audacity, an alleged scam has been named after the reputed scam capital of the world. On July 19 the British Columbia Securities Commission warned investors that a company called Vancouver Stock Exchange Corp “appears to have been issuing stock exchange listings to companies in China and B.C…. VSEC holds itself out as being the old Vancouver Stock Exchange (VSE). In fact, the VSE no longer exists.”

Moreover the new entity has no authorization to operate as an exchange in B.C.

The VSE merged with the Alberta exchange in 1999 to form the Calgary-based Canadian Venture Exchange, which was taken over in 2001 by the TMX Group’s (TSX:X) predecessor. But according to the commission, “VSEC claims that, in June of 2016, the old Vancouver Stock Exchange was reinstated as an independent exchange.”

VSEC’s Chinese-language website “identifies the companies that it purports to have approved for listing and capital raising,” the BCSC added. Anyone with info about VSEC is asked to contact BCSC Inquiries at 604-899-6854, 1-800-373-6393 or inquiries@bcsc.bc.ca.

On April 1, 2016, ResourceClips.com spoofed that a group of stock promoters planned to re-open the infamous VSE. See other April 1 stories:

Who gets a stake in this strategic U.S. asset—the Russian billionaire, the Chinese company or both?

June 16th, 2017

by Greg Klein | June 16, 2017

Efforts to reduce U.S. dependency on Chinese rare earths took an uncertain turn on June 15 as a group representing three American firms and a Chinese REE producer placed the winning bid for Mountain Pass. But the sale of bankrupt Molycorp Minerals’ former California mine, until its 2015 shutdown the only REE operation in the U.S., faces a number of challenges.

Who gets a stake in this strategic U.S. asset—the Russian billionaire, the Chinese company or both?

Mountain Pass: Could one rival bidder get the
mine while another holds the mineral rights?

The US$20.5-million top bid came from MP Mine Operations LLC, which “includes two noteholder groups from Molycorp’s original bankruptcy as well as Chinese investor Shenghe Resources Shareholding Co Ltd,” reported Law360.com. Shenghe Resources Holding is a Chinese company engaged in smelting, deep processing and sales of rare earths and other metals, according to Bloomberg, which notes Shenghe is a subsidiary of the China Geological Survey Institute of Multipurpose Utilization of Mineral Resources.

The bid surpassed a US$20-million stalking horse from ERP Strategic Minerals, part of the U.S.-based ERP Group of companies headed by Tom Clarke. The American billionaire credits his group with “a strong track record of restarting mines acquired out of U.S. bankruptcy and Canadian CCAA situations.” ERP planned to work with Pala Investments, headed by Russian-born billionaire Vladimir Iorich, and ASX-listed Peak Resources for financial, technical and operational support of the Mountain Pass mine and processing facility.

ERP had challenged the rival bid in court, saying the offer could be blocked by the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment or other regulators, Law360.com stated. The journal quoted ERP arguing that, without a pre-bid review, “the stalking horse bidder will be prejudiced by having to compete against unfair, non-complying bids, and there is a real risk of a flawed auction and a failed sales process.”

Who gets a stake in this strategic U.S. asset—the Russian billionaire, the Chinese company or both?

Bankrupt Molycorp’s former assets include an REE processing facility.

A judge allowed the auction to proceed, “setting the stage for a sale hearing on June 23,” Law360.com added. The site previously reported that the hearing was scheduled to consider objections from three federal regulatory agencies that say the former operation’s permits can’t be transferred through the auction.

According to Peak Resources, ERP will file an objection to the auction by June 19 “and may consider other legal remedies” prior to the June 23 hearing.

But members of the winning group already hold the mineral rights, according to the Financial Times. Last month the paper stated the rights are held by MP Mine Operations members JHL Capital Group and QVT Financial, both Molycorp creditors, along with Oaktree Capital. The American firms planned to work with Shenghe, the Chinese REE processor.

Contemplating a successful ERP bid prior to the auction, “Mr. Clarke said his group could still use the mine site to process material from elsewhere if they did not get the mineral rights—but he hoped to negotiate for them if he wins,” the paper added.

Mountain Pass went on care and maintenance in 2015 after Molycorp piled up some US$1.7 billion in debt. That left Lynas Corp’s Mount Weld operation in Western Australia as the world’s only significant source of rare earths outside China, which produces and processes about 90% of global supply.

The U.S. Geological Survey considers rare earths critical to the country’s economy and defence. Under the proposed METALS Act, a bill before U.S. Congress, the federal government would support the development of domestic sources and supply chains for critical minerals including rare earths.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation quotes academic J. Michael Cole suggesting China is a paper tiger

June 12th, 2017

…Read more

Linking the chain

June 9th, 2017

The REE world comes together at the Argus Americas Rare Earths Summit

by Greg Klein

What’s the rarest distinction of rare earths—economic deposits, expertise outside China or public awareness of our dependence on these critical metals? Those are concerns crucial to our society and among topics to be discussed as over 100 industry experts and insiders meet in San Diego from June 12 to 14. The event is the Argus Americas Rare Earths Summit 2017 and, with certain geopolitical circumstances looming in the background, this year’s conference might be especially auspicious.

The REE world comes together at the Argus Americas Rare Earths Summit

The San Diego conference scrutinizes several
rare earths topics from a variety of perspectives.

The gathering brings together end users, miners/processors, researchers/consultants and traders, as well as some investors and U.S. government reps. Topics will include supply and demand, the challenges of building non-Chinese supply chains, new developments in recovery and processing, and the potential for new production outside China.

Japanese and European markets get special attention, as does this continent. The North American session will examine the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency’s analytical techniques, rare earths stockpile and R&D programs. The session will also address Donald Trump’s impact on international trade, as well as the METALS Act, a proposed bill to provide government support for domestic sources of critical minerals.

The fate of that Congressional bill could indicate how well American lawmakers understand American dependence on China—and for minerals essential not only to the economy, medicine and green energy, but also to military defence. Those issues should also be understood by the wider populace, believes keynote speaker David S. Abraham.

Author of The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age, Abraham emphasizes the dubious origins of some necessary commodities, along with their complex and often fragile supply chains.

Companies will be on hand too. Just a few examples include vertically integrated giants Albemarle Corp and Treibacher Industrie, RE supplier HEFA Rare Earth Canada, Burundi miner-to-be Rainbow Rare Earths, along with Canadian advanced-stage RE juniors Matamec Explorations TSXV:MAT and Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE.

Presentations, panels, roundtables and networking—not to mention some conviviality at a brewery tour—portend a valuable three days. This could mark another step towards building vitally important supply chains for vitally important metals. For more information….

Commerce Resources and Ucore Rare Metals to co-operate on rare earths supply chain

June 5th, 2017

by Greg Klein | June 5, 2017

While China dominates the critical rare earths market, two companies plan to work together on potential North American supply and processing. Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE and Ucore Rare Metals TSXV:UCU have signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct metallurgical tests on material from Commerce’s Ashram REE deposit in northern Quebec. Characterized by relatively simple mineralogy and a favourable distribution of magnet feed elements, Ashram is currently moving towards pre-feasibility.

Commerce Resources and Ucore Rare Metals to co-operate on rare earths supply chain

The MOU would integrate Ashram material into Ucore’s SuperLig-One molecular recognition technology facility in Utah. A joint venture of Ucore and IBC Advanced Technologies, the MRT process involves selective separation.

The tests would determine the suitability of Ashram concentrate for a Strategic Metals Complex that Ucore plans to build in Utah to process REEs and platinum group metals. Following the tests, Commerce and Ucore would consider long-term supply and offtake agreements.

Metallurgical tests at a Colorado facility have already produced an Ashram concentrate surpassing 45% rare earth oxides at approximately 75% recovery.

Ashram’s “high-quality and high-grade mineral concentrate … looks to be a very promising candidate for processing via an MRT separation circuit,” commented Ucore president/CEO Jim McKenzie. “The Ashram deposit is large tonnage, good grade, hosts a well-balanced REE distribution with an enrichment in the magnet feed REEs and, perhaps most importantly, is highly accessible. In combination with the SMC, Ashram promises to be a key link in a self-contained North American REE supply chain.”

The news comes as U.S. Congress considers a bill to support domestic supplies and processing for minerals vital to defence, including rare earths. A number of recent reports from the U.S. Geological Survey have highlighted that country’s dependency on possibly insecure foreign sources.

Commerce president Chris Grove added, “Security of supply is vitally important and, with our simple mineralogy and successful use of standard processing, we look forward with Ucore to realizing the goal of an independent North American REE supply chain.”

Another recent MOU signed by Commerce would have independent power producer TUGLIQ Energy study the potential for wind-generated electricity on the Ashram project.

Last week Commerce closed a private placement of $942,630, which followed a February financing that raised $1.72 million including $1 million from Ressources Québec, a subsidiary of the provincial government corporation Investissement Québec.

Read more about Commerce Resources.

Read about the West’s dependency on China for critical minerals here and here.

China’s “disgusting” behaviour disrupts conflict diamonds meeting

May 3rd, 2017

by Greg Klein | May 3, 2017

An indigenous welcoming ceremony at a meeting to address illicit gems might command dignified respect. But not on May 3, not from the Chinese delegates.

The scene was a Perth conference of the Kimberley Process hosted by Australia’s foreign minister. Australia acts as this year’s chair of the group formed in 2000 by governments, industry and activists to fight the trade of rough diamonds used to undermine legitimate governments.

China’s “disgusting” behaviour disrupts conflict diamonds meeting

“It was disgusting,” the Sidney Morning Herald quoted an unnamed senior Australian official. “It was extraordinary, so uncalled for and so inappropriate, and so disrespectful.” The paper said the Chinese government delegation shouted over the indigenous speaker, forcing proceedings to a halt. Order wasn’t maintained until after Taiwanese observers were “ejected.”

The SMH reported that the Chinese “used the microphone at their table to speak over the chairman of the meeting, senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade official Robert Owen-Jones, as he tried to introduce the foreign minister Julie Bishop and the indigenous welcome ceremony, attendees said. The Chinese delegation said they had a point of order and demanded to know if everyone in the room had been ‘formally invited.’ The interruptions continued until the agenda was changed to address the so-called ‘point of order’ as the first item. Only then was the welcome to country permitted to go ahead, followed by Ms. Bishop’s speech.”

But more outbursts erupted later, according to the article. “Fairfax Media understands that another session later in the morning involving a panel discussion with executives from mining companies was abandoned altogether because of continual interruptions by various African delegations in support of the Chinese position.”

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that an attendee said “he had heard the Chinese were sending WhatsApp messages to their allies in the room, asking for support.”

If Australia had decided not to give into Chinese pressure on Monday I would be mightily surprised if China stopped buying Australia’s natural resources as a result because China desperately needs them for its economical development.—J. Michael Cole, quoted by ABC

The SMH stated a foreign affairs spokesperson said Australia had invited the Rough Diamond Trading Entity of Chinese Taipei “in line with earlier precedent.

“Continual disruption to the proceedings in the opening session was regrettable and the Australian government’s concerns with respect to the behaviour of Chinese delegates have been raised with the Chinese ambassador,” she added.

ABC spoke with J. Michael Cole of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, who noted that Australia’s one of the countries economically dependent on China. But he added, “I also want to emphasize that China needs those countries as much as those countries need China.

“If Australia had decided not to give into Chinese pressure on Monday I would be mightily surprised if China stopped buying Australia’s natural resources as a result because China desperately needs them for its economical development.”

Cobalt’s Congo conundrum

May 3rd, 2017

The battery market’s DRC dependency can only grow, says Benchmark

by Greg Klein

“If there’s any nation that contributes over 50% of supply for a mineral, alarm bells start to go off.” That’s especially true when the country is as troubled as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst Caspar Rawles told a Vancouver conference on April 21. Social and political instability combined with child labour concerns intensify what he calls the “cobalt conundrum,” in which battery manufacturers have no choice but to increase their reliance on DRC resources. That’s his forecast, even as he acknowledges demand for new sources from elsewhere.

The DRC easily dominates global cobalt, with 64% of mined supply according to the most recent Benchmark figures. No more reassuring, China dominates refined supply with 57%. Without significant cobalt reserves of its own, the country holds a prominent position in DRC mining, where the energy ingredient results as a byproduct of copper extraction.

The battery market’s DRC dependency can only grow, says Benchmark

That position expanded this year with the Freeport-McMoRan NYSE:FCX/Lundin Mining TSX:LUN sale of their DRC Tenke Fungurume copper-cobalt mine to China Molybdenum and a Chinese private equity firm. An anticipated and equally geopolitically feckless follow-up would be the American/Canadian JV’s sale of its Finnish cobalt refinery to the same people. By processing Fungurume ore, the facility provides about 10% of the world’s refined supply, Rawles says.

For all the disturbing news coming out of the Congo, “there will be no lithium-ion battery industry without DRC cobalt,” Rawles maintains. “We expect cobalt supply from the DRC to become more dominant in the market, and that’s because of where the large projects are, plus-10,000 tonnes a year.”

Yet by no means is Congo cobalt necessarily conflict cobalt, even when artisanal supply is considered. Some artisanal operations are perfectly legal, he says, while media-reported numbers can be “inflated.”

Tackling the issue presents difficulties, Rawles says. Companies often mine a small part of huge concessions, with no power to prevent the desperately poor from working other parts of the claims. The only people with any such power in the DRC “are the mining police and they just confiscate the material, they don’t take away the problem. It’s a longstanding problem and it’s going to take time to resolve.”

Not surprisingly, “substitution is definitely something that cathode companies are working on,” he points out. Not all cathodes require cobalt, unlike lithium. Even so, he sees about 81% of the market continuing to use cobalt cathodes.

As the Li-ion battery market grows from 70 GWh last year to Benchmark’s estimated 170 GWh in 2020, “cobalt demand will be high but won’t surpass supply.” Beyond 2020, Rawles predicts a deficit growing to 2023, then ending around 2024 or 2025.

“The only thing that can accelerate a reduction in cobalt is supply disruption,” he adds. Critics of DRC President Joseph Kabila attribute the country’s delayed elections to his determination to retain power after 16 years in office. Protests have resulted in scores of fatalities, raising fears of even wider civil unrest.

Another possible impact on supply/demand forecasts could come “if EVs take off even more quickly than we expect.”

The DRC hosts the world’s two big near-term copper-cobalt operations, Glencore’s majority-held Katanga mine and Eurasian Resources Group’s Metalkol Roan Tailings Reclamation project. Rawles expects Katanga to resume production early next year after its 2015 suspension. While the project’s technical report sets annual cobalt capacity at 30,000 tonnes, he expects the early years will probably realize half of that.

There will be demand from certain companies that don’t want to touch DRC cobalt.—Caspar Rawles,
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence

RTR’s slated for 2019 startup, Rawles says. ERG targets an initial 14,000 tonnes of cobalt annually, increasing to 20,000 tonnes over the next three to five years.

So despite “a number of other, smaller projects in the pipeline,” DRC dominance will prevail. Still, Rawles does see opportunity for other sources of cobalt. But new suppliers will have to follow a “value-added strategy,” he argues. They must produce a cobalt chemical that meets a manufacturer’s precise requirements. And the suppliers need to do that without refining their product in China, where it might be blended with conflict supply.

“That’s how they can brand themselves,” he says. “There’s going to be demand for that. Certainly the large supply is going to come from the DRC and if you’re really serious about EVs, that’s where the cobalt’s going to come from. It’s not going to happen without that.”

But, he emphasizes, “there will be demand from certain companies that don’t want to touch DRC cobalt.”