Cobalt is currently best known as an important ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, but there are plenty of other cobalt uses investors should know about.
Cobalt, whose name is derived from a German word meaning “evil spirits,” has been valued by humans since the Egyptians used it as a coloring agent.
Today, the metal is considered one of the world’s essential elements. With its high melting point and ability to maintain strength even at raised temperatures, it is useful in cutting tools, superalloys, surface coatings, high-speed steels and many other materials.
Below is an overview of those and other cobalt uses. While this critical metal is currently best known as an ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, it has plenty of other uses investors should know about.
Cobalt uses: Rechargeable batteries
One of cobalt’s main applications right now is in rechargeable batteries of all kinds. It is crucial in the manufacturing of these batteries because it helps them overcome numerous issues.
For example, early versions of nickel-metal hydride batteries had problems such as a poor lifecycle, internal cell pressure and corrosion. However, engineers found that the addition of cobalt to these batteries solved many of these problems.
Similarly, the first versions of lithium-ion batteries were found to be too reactive, resulting in battery fires. These batteries have been stabilized and now contain up to 60 percent cobalt per cell.
Demand for rechargeable batteries has risen sharply in the last couple of decades. Case in point: in the mid-1990s, only 1 percent of cobalt was used in electronics, but now “around 10 percent of global cobalt production goes into smartphones,” according to Marc Grynberg, CEO of electric car battery maker Umicore (EBR:UMI) — that’s a 10-fold increase. This number is expected to continue to rise due to increased demand for cell phones, electric cars and other electronics that require rechargeable batteries.
Electric vehicles in particular have become a huge source of demand for cobalt in recent years. They are powered by lithium-ion batteries, and as mentioned, cobalt is a key element in these batteries.
This increasing need for cobalt has driven prices up substantially, and there have been efforts to find a substitute for the metal in lithium-ion batteries. Some battery makers are now looking at ways to use more nickel and less cobalt in lithium-ion batteries.
As Reuters reported last year, Asian battery makers have “tweake[ed] the recipe.” They are aiming to change the ratio of their cathode materials from 60 percent nickel, 20 percent cobalt and 20 percent manganese to 80 percent nickel, 10 percent cobalt and 10 percent manganese. As yet, it is not possible to completely replace cobalt.
If high cobalt prices persist and progress is made in substitution, it’s possible that cobalt could take on a smaller role in battery manufacturing. Recently, carmaker Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) announced that it’s now aiming to reduce its cobalt down to almost zero, which isn’t good for cobalt investors and producers.
Cobalt prices could take a steep dive if that happens. But for now, the metal remains essential.
Cobalt uses: Superalloys and beyond
There are many other cobalt uses aside from batteries. As already noted, cobalt’s ability to stand up to high temperatures and its good oxidation resistance make it an important alloying element for superalloys, which are used for casting airfoils and other structural parts of jet turbine engines.
Cobalt alloys also have a fairly high tolerance for thermal fatigue and can be repaired easily. Most high-bypass turbofan jet engines contain between 110 and 132 pounds of cobalt. The metal is also magnetic, and can be used to produce permanent magnets.
Another cobalt use is as an essential element in the metabolism of humans and other animals — those who cannot retain cobalt naturally have to be treated with B12 vitamin therapy. Cobalt-60 is also used for cancer treatment via radiotherapy, and cobalt is applied in soil dressings in cobalt-deficient soil to prevent “wasting disease” in grazing animals.
Do you believe cobalt prices will continue to climb, or will they crumble if the electric vehicle market moves forward without the metal? Are there new cobalt uses on the horizon to support the metal’s price? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
This is an updated version of an article originally published by the Investing News Network in June 2013.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Amanda Kay, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.