Employees walk past a Samsung sign in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Employees walk past a Samsung sign in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Seoul — Samsung SDI, a battery supplier to car makers 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 (DRC) as a source of cobalt.

The African country — plagued by decades of corruption, violence and even child labour — produces more than half of the world’s supplies. Prices have more than tripled since the start of 2016 due to rising demand amid the electric-vehicle boom and a lack of major alternative sources.

Samsung SDI, an affiliate of Samsung Electronics, will buy a stake in a company with recycling technology and sign a deal to ensure long-term cobalt supply, it said by e-mail.

That puts the company in competition with Volkswagen, BMW and Panasonic, 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 towards recycling to reduce reliance on Congo is irreversible."

SDI did not name what company it was negotiating with, instead mentioning American Manganese and Umicore as leading recycling firms in its statement.

Samsung Electronics said in July that the recycling of parts from millions of its ill-fated Note 7 smartphone would extract 157 tonnes of cobalt, copper and other minerals

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 would be essential because the mining of raw materials would not be enough to meet the world’s needs if electric vehicle demand continued to rise at the current pace beyond 2025, CEO 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 the recycling of parts from millions of its ill-fated Note 7 smartphone would extract 157 tonnes of cobalt, copper and other minerals.

The technologies to extract minerals from dead batteries could add 25,000 tonnes of supply by 2025, according to projections by commodity analysts CRU Group. Samsung SDI competes with Panasonic and LG Chem to produce lithium-ion batteries, which are used in everything from home electronics to luxury yachts.

Once cobalt supplies from phones stabilise, Samsung SDI may follow Toshiba and Panasonic in extracting materials from used hybrid electric vehicles.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects 311,000 tonnes 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%. The company also wants to adopt nickel-cobalt-aluminum oxide batteries for electric cars, reflecting the trend in which car makers gradually move to batteries that use less cobalt.

Bloomberg

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