TOKYO — Japan’s Mitsubishi Materials aims to become a producer of cobalt with a new operation in Chile that would diversify the supply of a metal vital to electric vehicles, Nikkei has learned.
The company will begin testing a production method in fiscal 2023 that seeks to extract cobalt at economically viable levels from even low-grade ore. It has a target of achieving commercial production in fiscal 2027.
Access to cobalt has become a bottleneck in EV battery production. The metal is typically a byproduct of copper and nickel mining, which makes it difficult to scale up output on demand. Geographic concentration is also a problem: Congo accounts for 70% of cobalt production.
Demand for the metal is expected to surpass supply as early as the mid-2020s if electric vehicles catch on quickly, according to the Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security.
A common production method for cobalt is to extract it from the liquid that remains after ore has been soaked in sulfuric acid to extract copper. Ores with relatively high cobalt contents of 0.1% to 0.4% are considered to be profitable.
Mitsubishi Materials’ extraction method aims be profitable even when cobalt content is only about one-thirtieth that of conventional ores, people familiar with the matter said.
Testing will begin in fiscal 2023 at the Mantoverde copper mine in Chile, which is partly owned by the Japanese company.
If commercial production is possible, output could start at around 200 tonnes per year — enough for almost 20,000 EVs.
There are also mines in Australia and elsewhere that produce ores with low cobalt content. Mitsubishi Materials will study the possibility of producing cobalt in other mines using the same method.
This will be Mitsubishi Materials’ first attempt to produce the metal used in lithium ion battery cathodes. Japanese peer Sumitomo Metal Mining is involved in cobalt production.
Mitsubishi Materials’ production method could eventually compete with battery recycling as a source of cobalt. Recycling methods are being tested around the world, but the cost of collecting discarded batteries presents a hurdle.
Cobalt was among the critical minerals that Japan’s government designated last year under an economic security law.