China urged to ease reliance on DRC for cobalt

GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - China is depending too much on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for cobalt, a crucial component in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, and should take steps to ensure security of supply, delegates said at an industry conference on Tuesday.

China, the world’s top cobalt consumer, is “over-reliant” on the African country, which accounts for around half of global cobalt supplies, said Wu Lijue, chairman of Guangdong Jiana Energy Technology Co, a supplier of cobalt salts and other materials for EV battery cathodes.

Jiana itself, as well as compatriots including Huayou Cobalt Co and China Molybdenum, have all invested in cobalt-bearing assets in the DRC.

Speaking on the sidelines of the China International Nickel and Cobalt Industry Forum in Guangzhou, Wu told Reuters that China should consider upstream cobalt investments in Canada and Australia. Jiana has looked at potential assets in Canada, he said, without giving further details.

Xu Aidong, secretary general of Antaike’s cobalt branch, said China “should develop some new channels” in its cobalt supply chain, by turning to other cobalt-producing countries such as Australia and stepping up recycling.

The risk of investing in the DRC was highlighted in late September, when the country briefly ordered a joint venture of Chinese investors known as Sicomines to stop exporting raw copper and cobalt.

Wu noted that China has only 1 percent of global cobalt reserves and was exposed to price fluctuations due to its hefty reliance on imports.

Driven by the EV boom, China’s cobalt consumption is set to rise by 17.4 percent this year to 54,000 tonnes, according to Ding Xuequan, vice president of the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association.

Wu said China needed to work out how to guarantee supply of battery raw materials and reduce their costs. The latter could be achieved by a combination of supportive policies and accelerated R&D work, he said.

Three-month cobalt is up 84 percent year to date at $60,250 a tonne on the London Metal Exchange, while nickel - another metal set to play a big role in the EV revolution - is up 29 percent to just under $13,000 per tonne.

The high cost of battery raw materials would also encourage development of alternatives such as “hydrogen batteries or other types of batteries,” Wu said.

Reporting by Tom Daly; Editing by Richard Pullin