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Sustainable Systems Forum: Cobalt from 2000 through 2020- Mining, processing, refining, industrial consumption, production losses, supply surpluses, artisanal miners, and Chinese influence

Event Type
Sustainable Systems Forum
Andrew Gulley, Ph.D.
Center for Sustainable Systems
February 17, 202312:00pm - 1:00pm


Cobalt is an indispensable element for the manufacture of strategic technologies including advanced batteries, jet engines, rare-earth permanent magnets, petroleum catalysts, and tool parts that enable construction, manufacturing, and mining. Cobalt routinely scores high in mineral supply risk assessments due to the concentration of cobalt mine production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), even though DRC cobalt mine production grew 20% a year from 1995 through 2020. From 2000 through 2020, demand for cobalt to manufacture batteries grew 26-fold, 82% of this growth occurred in China, and China’s cobalt refinery production increased 78-fold. In the early/mid-2000s, Chinese firms largely fed China’s growing cobalt refining industry with artisanally produced cobalt ores and concentrates from the DRC. China’s increasing demand for such materials resulted in artisanal production equal to roughly 40% of total DRC cobalt mine production in the mid-2000’s. This share fell to 8% in 2020. Chinese firms have targeted cobalt materials that feed the production of battery cathode materials. In 2020 China produced 90% of refined cobalt chemicals, 81% of battery-grade tricobalt tetroxide, 86% of battery-grade cobalt sulfate, and 96% of nickel-cobalt-manganese precursor materials. Despite gloomy predictions over the last 20 years, most cobalt materials were in surplus for most years from 2000 through 2020. Rather than running out of cobalt, losing supplies from the DRC, or no longer consuming cobalt due to artisanal issues, the greatest risk to non-Chinese cobalt-consuming manufacturers may now be China’s near-monopoly market share.


My name is Andrew Gulley. I have worked as a mineral economist with the USGS National Minerals Information Center (NMIC) since 2016. My research at NMIC has focused on China’s escalating influence over world non-fuel mineral commodity markets, as well as potential impacts this may have on US national and economic security. This has included research on international competition for mineral commodities, Chinese foreign mineral investments, critical mineral supply risks to strategic Chinese industries, mineral commodity supply risks of US manufacturing industries, mineral commodity trade risk, and Chinese control over the world cobalt supply chain. Before joining USGS, I received a PhD in Mineral Economics from the Colorado School of Mines while working for mining companies, mining investment firms, and mining-focused NGOs. I received a bachelor’s degree in law and economics from the University of Chicago.