INTERNATIONAL - Samsung SDI Co., a battery supplier to carmakers including BMW, plans to recycle cobalt from used mobile phones as companies around the world scramble to secure supplies of the metal amid surging prices.
The plan fuels a trend among battery makers to reduce dependence on the Democratic Republic of Congo as a source of cobalt. The African country -- plagued by decades of corruption, violence and even child labor -- produces more than half of the world’s supplies. Rising demand amid the electric-vehicle boom and a lack of major alternative sources has seen prices more than triple since the start of 2016.
Samsung SDI, an affiliate of Samsung Electronics Co., will buy a stake in a company with recycling technology and sign a deal to ensure long-term cobalt supplies, it said by email. That puts the Seoul, South Korea-based company in competition with Volkswagen AG, BMW AG and Panasonic Corp., which are all trying to lock in sources of the metal.
“Price concerns are the biggest motivating factor for SDI,” said Lee Hyun-bock, a research analyst at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources. “Keeping the prices low is vital when Chinese competitors are posing a threat, while it’s clear now that the trend toward recycling to reduce reliance on Congo is irreversible.”
SDI didn’t name what company it was negotiating with, instead mentioning American Manganese Inc. and Umicore SA as leading recycling firms in its statement.
Umicore is among the world’s biggest cobalt consumers and is investing to boost capacity to recycle the metal at an operation in Olen, Belgium. Recycling will be essential because mining of raw materials won’t be enough to meet the world’s needs if electric vehicle demand continues to rise at the current pace beyond 2025, Chief Executive Officer Marc Grynberg said on an earnings call last week.
Used phones could be sourced from anywhere. Samsung Electronics annually produces hundreds of millions of devices with batteries that contain the material. It said in July that recycling of parts from millions of its ill-fated Note 7 smartphone would extract 157 tons of cobalt, copper and other minerals.
The technologies to extract minerals from dead batteries could add 25,000 metric tons of supply by 2025, according to projections by commodity analysts CRU Group. Samsung SDI competes with Panasonic and LG Chem Ltd. to produce lithium-ion batteries, which are used in everything from home electronics to luxury yachts.
Once cobalt supplies from phones stabilize, Samsung SDI may follow Toshiba Corp. and Panasonic in extracting materials from used hybrid electric vehicles. Bloomberg New Energy Finance anticipates 311,000 tons of electric car batteries will stop working by 2025.
Samsung SDI is also speeding up the development of products using more nickel, including nickel-cobalt-manganese batteries in which the ratio of nickel is as much as 88 percent. The company also wants to adopt nickel-cobalt-aluminum oxide batteries for electric cars, reflecting the trend in which carmakers gradually move to batteries that use less cobalt.