As the mining and investment world gathers in London this week for the Mines and Money conference, future trends in battery metals markets will doubtless be one of the major talking points. Europe's biggest mining and investment conference kicks off with a day-long Battery Metals Summit at which Roskill will be speaking. Ahead of the event, Roskill highlights some key metals used in batteries and recent trends in these markets. Visit us at Booth F27 from Tuesday 29th November to learn more.
Lithium continues to attract the most attention of all the battery metals. This is because demand continues to grow after more than a decade of strong performance. Lithium consumption increased from 64,000t LCE to just over 177,000t LCE in 2015, a cumulative annual growth rate of 7%. Despite a 9% drop as a result of the global financial crisis, consumption recovered strongly in 2010 and the market has since grown by around 10,000tpy LCE. Growth has, of course, been led by the Li-ion battery market, which accounted for 37% of total lithium consumption in 2015, a more than ten-fold increase from the amount consumed in 2000.
Lithium prices have been surging since H2 2015, with a shortage of finished carbonate and hydroxide resulting from strong 2015 and 2016 demand growth but limited new supply and tighter control on Chinese mineral concentrate feedstock availability. Short-term contract prices for lithium carbonate and hydroxide ex-China began rising in H1 2016, following the strong upward trend in Chinese spot prices that began the previous year. Indications from 2017 contract negotiations suggest that average contract prices for carbonate will average over US$10,000 and hydroxide potentially over US$15,000. With marginal costs slightly above 50% of prices, the incentive for additional capacity and supply has increased dramatically in 2016 with opportunities for incumbent producers and project developers alike. Demand growth is likely to continue at a high, and increasing, rate, which is arguably the bigger incentive for additional supply.
Cobalt also continues to attract considerable interest from investors and other market participants alike. Rechargeable batteries provide the largest, and the fastest growing, market for cobalt. The use of cobalt oxide, sulphate and powder, in rechargeable battery cathode materials now accounts for over 45% of consumption. This strong demand is expected to continue. To 2025, Roskill anticipates demand for cobalt to grow at roughly 5%py with demand for cobalt in Li-ion battery applications expected to increase at nearly 7%py.
Last year saw cobalt prices fall quarter-on-quarter. Prices fell even further in Q1 2016. At US$10.83/lb, the average cobalt price for the quarter was at its lowest level in almost 4 years. Nonetheless, Q2 and Q3 2016 brought about a small recovery in prices and today prices are trending between US$13/lb and US$14/lb.
Temporary shutdowns at key mines and the closure of some refined metal capacity have helped support the price and mean that there will be a small cobalt metal deficit in 2017. This tight market is expected to support prices next year. For the time being there is sufficient capacity for cobalt chemicals mainly consumed in batteries - and some of the major players have expansions underway. However, significant capacity expansions will continue to be required if supply is to keep pace with demand. Failure to do this will likely see currently high metal stocks and inventories drawn down and converted to oxide and sulphate in the short term but could mean price increases over the longer term.
Graphite is widely consumed in batteries, but they account for <1% of overall graphite demand meaning the market is not dictated by batteries. An estimated 136,000t of graphite is expected to be used in batteries in 2016, with Li-ion battery anodes accounting for around 80% of consumption. Li-ion batteries are one of the only sectors where there is real competition between natural and synthetic graphite. Around 27,000t of synthetic graphite could be manufactured specifically for use in lithium-ion batteries in 2016 with high-purity, high-carbon grade and few impurities that could impede battery performance. A further 86,000t of natural graphite could be used to produce spherical graphite for this application; natural graphite must be highly purified and shaped in order to compete with synthetic in terms of purity, grade and consistency. Spherical processing has very low yields; around half of all graphite is lost as waste, limiting raw material use to fine and medium size flake. The price of spherical graphite (when finished with expensive coatings) approaches that of high-value synthetic. Even before coating, spherical graphite is more than five times the average price of the raw material flake graphite.
China dominates manufacture of Li-ion battery anodes and is the largest supplier of both natural and synthetic graphite. Currently, all spherical graphite processing is limited to China because of the use of strong reagents and the cost of meeting environmental restrictions outside China. A number of natural graphite projects are committed to developing a spherical graphite supply chain outside China, possibly using alternative processing methods. Meanwhile, poorly performing steel markets may continue to drive down the price of synthetic graphite and encourage synthetic graphite manufacturers to focus on the battery industry as they diversify away from the main market of steel-making electrodes. Roskill believes that growing Li-ion battery demand will provide room for increased consumption of both natural and synthetic graphite but that synthetic may increase its market share as it has the potential to be more flexible to requirements.
Nickel has long been used in NiCd and NiMH batteries, but much of the future growth in the battery sector is expected to come from Li-ion batteries. Nickel is used in several cathode materials, including nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) and nickel-cobalt-alumina (NCA). Proportions of nickel vary, but can be as high as 90%, and cathode chemistries with high proportions of nickel have been growing at a faster pace than low-nickel chemistries as nickel brings superior energy density than cobalt and manganese.
As a percentage of the total market, batteries account for only 3-4% of total nickel consumption, which remains driven largely by metallurgical sectors such as stainless steel. In 2015, nickel use in batteries amounted to around 68,000t. The main nickel products used in batteries, however, are nickel sulphate and nickel hydroxide - and total output of these salts (estimated at around 80-90,000t in 2015) represents a fraction of world nickel output, so that the market for nickel in batteries has its own supply-demand dynamics, although still influenced by the overall balance and prices in the nickel market.
Nickel prices briefly dropped below US$8,000/t in the beginning of the year, but have since recovered. Since 2014, the fall in nickel prices (owing to oversupply and weak demand from metallurgical sectors) has led much of the industry to operate at a cash loss. Unsustainable over the longer term, nickel prices recovered to the US$10,000-11,000/t range by the middle of the year, and peaked in November as part of a price rally in base metals after the US election results. While significant overcapacity in the nickel industry remains, a recovery in stainless demand, when combined with strong demand from batteries could push up prices for nickel further, with Roskill anticipating prices above US$15,000/t by 2020. Nickel prices, however, have been notoriously volatile, and difficult to predict, owing in part to considerable political uncertainty - for instance as a result of Indonesia's 2014 nickel export ban, and an environmental crackdown in the Philippines.