The global shift away from internal combustion engine-powered cars and towards electric vehicles (“EVs”) continues to accelerate at a record pace. With growing demand for the metals involved in the production of EV batteries being complemented in many cases by supply-side disruption, a major investment opportunity has arisen.

According to the International Energy Agency (“IEA”), electric car usage has been soaring over the last decade, with global stock passing five million in 2018 – a 63% increase on the previous year. However, this annual growth rate looks set to accelerate further moving forward. The same organisation expects the number of EVs on the road to hit 125 million by 2030, while JP Morgan believes that EVs and hybrid electric vehicles will account for 30% of all vehicle sales by 2025.

The reasons for this accelerating uptake are varied, encompassing improving technology, increasing environmental consciousness, and – critically – growing government support. Leaders around the world are setting ambitious targets and granting generous incentives to encourage the complete phase-out of traditional vehicles in favour of plug-in EVs in their respective nations. For example, the UK government’s current policy is to insist that, by 2040, all new cars and vans sold in the UK should be zero-emissions capable. Meanwhile, China aims to have five million EVs on the road by the end of 2020, increasing to over 80 million by 2030.

However, when it comes to meeting these ambitious targets, getting the public on board is just one half of the battle. The other half is ensuring that the capacity exists to meet the demand for EVs and their related charging infrastructure – a burden shared by governments and automobile manufacturers alike.

The wheels are already in motion here. Earlier this month, Canada and the US announced that they had finalised the Canada-US Joint Action Plan on Critical Minerals Collaboration. This aims to reduce both nations’ dependency on outside sources when it comes to sourcing “critical minerals” – many of which are required to build EV batteries – by securing supply chains. As well as the EV sector, this covers areas like manufacturing, communications, aerospace, and defence. Likewise, the US and China recently inked an initial trade deal that will boost America’s production of rare earth metals – critical to EV production because of their powerful magnetic properties.

Waking up to change

Key EV nations have woken up to the need to secure domestic energy metal supply, and these growing efforts throw yet more weight behind forecasts of a real explosion in uptake. The metals used in the production of these vehicles – particularly their batteries - are a clear beneficiary of this milestone. One of the most interesting is cobalt, a critical raw material for electric transport used in most common types of lithium-ion batteries.

Alongside an anticipated surge in demand like many of its battery metal peers, cobalt is experiencing severe supply-side disruption. This comes almost entirely down to the fact that nearly two-thirds of the metal comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC").

The cobalt industry in the DRC is well known for its vast artisanal mining contingent. Artisanal mining may be a vital source of income for many, but it also throws up many issues such as safety, child labour, and human rights abuses. These problems faced unprecedented levels of exposure last July when dozens of illegal miners were killed at Glencore’s Mutanda copper/cobalt mine after a wall collapsed. The firm subsequently shut the mine, effectively removing 20% of the world’s cobalt supply from the market. In the wake of this, several companies – including BMW and Apple – announced that they would stop buying cobalt from the DRC or at the very least insist on tighter regulations over working conditions.

Meanwhile, some areas of the EV market are even looking at ways to cut the amount of cobalt used in the batteries powering their vehicles. Tesla boss Elon Musk has pledged to remove the mineral from the next generation of his company’s cars and has already reduced the amount used in Tesla batteries from 11 kilograms per vehicle to 4.5 kilograms. Likewise, global tech companies like South Korea’s SK Innovation and LG Chem and the UK’s Johnson Matthew are researching ways of making cobalt-free batteries.

However, the reality is that removing cobalt from lithium-ion batteries is more easily said than done. Benchmark Minerals’ forecasts suggest that global demand for cobalt in 2029 will be 300,000 tonnes compared with an estimated 70,000 tonnes in 2019. Meanwhile, Tesla is thought to be inking a long-term contract with Glencore to ship cobalt to its new EV factor in Shanghai – suggesting the metal will remain key to the company’s expansion over the next few years at least.

So, while the movement away from cobalt may one day occur, for the time being, it appears to remain merely an idea than a reality. This poses an interesting dynamic for the metal in which its usage has to grow alongside accelerating EV adoption at the same time as industry participants are eschewing its key supplying nation. A clear beneficiary, therefore, appears to be companies with cobalt projects in the remaining 40% of supplying countries that are presumably giving rise to fewer ethical and jurisdictional issues than the DRC.

One such example is Global Energy Metals (TSX-V:GEMC), a pure-play cobalt business building a portfolio of projects in stable jurisdictions such as Queensland in Australia, Nevada in the US, and Ontario in Canada. Chief executive Mitchell Smith explains that the company has positioned itself ahead of the curve when it comes to the global trend of moving away from areas such as the DRC to source increasing amounts of cobalt.

As the global energy landscape evolves it is becoming much more mineral and metal intensive. Increasing the global production of batteries to electrify vehicles and power electronic devices will demand enormous quantities of critical minerals like cobalt. But the development of new mines, especially those in jurisdictionally safe mining districts in close proximity to refining capacity and end-use markets is not keeping pace,” he says.

“This paves the way for Global Energy Metals to continue to grow its strategies on a number of verticals and be integrated into the battery economy through collaboration with fellow industry peers with the direction of building a stable supply chain and mineral independence.”

Author: Daniel Flynn

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