One hundred years of cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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). This stands in contrast to the fact that DRC cobalt mine production had a 20% compound annual growth rate from 1995 through 2020—in large part due to investments by Chinese firms beginning in the mid-2000s. Given this continuous growth, one may ask why this supply is perceived to be so risky. This analysis illuminates the causes of historic disruptions to DRC cobalt mine and refinery production by analyzing country-level production, historical reports, and cobalt prices back to 1924. The results indicate that the main causes of supply disruptions were damage to transportation routes, underinvestment in maintaining nationalized mining assets, and the disintegration of the DRC economy during the early 1990s. On the other hand, cobalt mine production increased 50% from 1977 to 1979 despite two secessionist conflicts in DRC's cobalt producing region and increased seven-fold from 1996 to 2003 despite two African wars over the DRC and its resources. These results indicate that—barring another economic disintegration or mining industry nationalization—DRC mine production will likely continue to be the dominant supplier of the world's growing demand for cobalt in lithium-ion batteries. These results also indicate that sustained development of transportation (and other) infrastructure in Africa, as well as support for good governance in the DRC may prove key to the continued stability of DRC cobalt mine supplies.
|One hundred years of cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
|Andrew L. Gulley
|USGS Publications Warehouse
|National Minerals Information Center