Battery Metals: A Shocking Introduction (pt1/7: Cobalt)

An open charging port on a dark grey electric car.

I, like many investors, possess a stalwart belief in the EV revolution and expect charging Teslas to occupy every street corner in the near future. As a consequence, it seems prudent to consider investing in the battery metal market.

Bloomberg’s 2019 Electric Vehicle Outlook report demonstrates the rapid growth of the market, with two million electric vehicles being sold globally in 2018, up from a few thousand in 2010. Their projections further confirm this could be a good time to seek out a winner, with predicted sales rising to 10 million in 2025, 28 million in 2030 and 56 million by 2040. (1)

Furthermore, the International Energy Agency have released their Global EV Outlook for 2019. The results demonstrate a 63% increase in global electric passenger car stock in 2018, and a 44% increase in the installation of electric LDV chargers. Projections under the EV30@30 scenario place EV sales at 44 million per year by 2030. (2) These are just two examples from a swathe of encouraging studies showing the rapid growth of the EV market.

However, the preeminent question for any potential investor still remains to be answered: how on earth can I make money out of this? The answer lies in the heart of the vehicles themselves: battery metals. Here’s how to get started.

Lithium-Ion Batteries – The Misconception

A widely perpetuated falsity about EV batteries is their apparent simplicity. When individuals hear the phrase ‘lithium-ion batteries,’ their minds often retreat back to a rudimentary high-school physics lesson, where paper planes circled the room like a warzone, and batteries were presented as simpler than tying shoelaces.

In truth, batteries feature a variety of metals. These metals are important to the EV economy. More importantly, these metals can make you money.

Today, we’re starting with talking about one of the most controversial battery metals, cobalt.

Cobalt

A photo of a pile of small blue shards of cobalt.

Cobalt appears in the majority of commercial lithium-ion batteries. It is also the most expensive component. In spite of its prevalence, it is worth nothing researchers have developed rechargeable batteries that don’t require cobalt. Moreover, Tesla’s battery supplier, Panasonic, have announced they are developing batteries that don’t need cobalt; Elon Musk tweeted last year: ‘We use less than 3% cobalt in our batteries & will use none in next gen.’ (3) Tesla have reduced the amount of cobalt in its NCA (nickel, cobalt, aluminium) formula massively in recent years.

…yeah, we think we can we can get the cobalt to almost nothing.

Elon Musk in a letter to shareholders

There are a variety of reasons behind the desire to reduce cobalt use in batteries. The majority of cobalt is sourced from Africa, pre-eminently the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are numerous ethical concerns regarding the procurement of cobalt, such as child labour, and artisanal workers employing dangerous methods of extraction. Therefore, companies are being pressurised by human rights activists to reduce their consumption of cobalt, and even discard it altogether. In recent years, companies like Apple and Samsung have been pressured into joining the Responsible Cobalt Initiative.

Furthermore, from an investor’s standpoint, the cobalt market has notable issues. While it is rarer than other battery components, such as lithium or graphite, cobalt is not especially scarce and is typically produced as a by-product of nickel or copper mining. Therefore, if nickel or copper are suffering from low prices, cobalt will too. Investors should be aware that cobalt is not necessarily a fully independent market and is instead reliant on the success of larger nickel and copper markets.

However, attempts to remove cobalt have caused a variety of issues for manufacturers. Cobalt is currently integral to the life cycle of cells within batteries. A reduction in cobalt results in significantly reduced longevity for batteries.

There are also safety concerns that have yet to be addressed. One need only look at the international overheating controversy surrounding the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 to see some of the issues pertaining to cobalt reduction. A reduction in cobalt requires an increased amount of nickel, which can cause cells to overheat and eventually combust. While this is unlikely, it remains an at-present unavoidable risk.

In addition, any formulation with low cobalt levels requires specific dry, costly environments for production. Last year, irrespective of its work to reduce cobalt, Panasonic tripled its consumption for Tesla batteries. It is clear that despite reduction being a long-term aim for many, cobalt is still a crucial element of batteries and will not be going anywhere soon, a position that has been supported by Nobel Prize winner John B. Goodenough.  

There are numerous companies who still feel cobalt is an exciting opportunity for investors to chase paper. Crux Investor has recently interviewed Canada Cobalt Works, (https://youtu.be/V2puGQDRwAk) and Jervois Mining (https://youtu.be/U6GUKdLH_5I). Both offered intriguing arguments as to why it is still an exciting commodity for investors to put their hard-earned cash into.

We investors need to make our minds up about the EV revolution. If we think, like many of the experts and industry players, that it is inevitable, we need to pick some winners. Remember, don’t invest in anything you don’t understand; have a clear view about what your investment thesis is. I want to find out more as there will be clear winners and losers.

As of today, cobalt sits at $38.58/kg , a 34.55% since the beginning of 2019 (4). The all-time high is $105/kg in March of 2018 and the record low is $23.98/kg in February 2016 (5). Huge swings are possible which is all part of the excitement of investing.

Be sure to check out the next article in the series, which will discuss the technological conundrum: vanadium.

  1. https://about.bnef.com/electric-vehicle-outlook/#toc-viewreport
  2. https://www.iea.org/publications/reports/globalevoutlook2019/
  3. https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1006968985760366592?lang=en
  4. https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/cobalt
  5. https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/cobalt

Company page: http://www.cruxinvestor.com

If you see something in this article that you agree with, or even disagree with, please let us know in the comments below.

Any advice contained in this website is general advice only and has been prepared without considering your objectives, financial situations or needs. You should not rely on any advice and / or information contained in this website or via any digital Crux Investor communications. Before making any investment decision we recommend that you consider whether it is appropriate for your situation and seek appropriate financial, taxation and legal advice.

An open charging port on a dark grey electric car.

Energy Fuels: I need your clothes, your boots, and your uranium mill.

A picture of the face of the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wears sunglasses and holds a gun up.

If, like me, you are a budding investor, you likely spend hours each night scouring the internet for the latest and best opportunities to make money. From economic revolutions instigated by futuristic technology, to trade embargos plummeting the prices of certain commodities, the world of investment is a complex minefield, which incites fear and excitement in equal measure.

In recent days, a commodity that has captured my focus is uranium; certain American economic news regarding it has intrigued me, in addition to the international surge of attention towards climate change. Following national news coverage in the last few weeks, it has been impossible not to notice seething commuters warring with Extinction Rebellion protestors. What could possibly cause smartly dressed commuters to devolve into a primitive mob? The answer is the increasingly intense climate change debate.

A colour photo of a crowd of colourfully dressed Extinction Rebellion protestors holding a large green banner stating: 'REBEL FOR LIFE.'

This event was one of many occurring in England’s capital in recent months. Additionally, Greta Thunberg’s damning climate change speeches have navigated themselves into the centre of international discourse. An individual wouldn’t be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize unless their cause was especially relevant.   

One of the key components of the raging debate is nuclear energy. Nuclear-based electricity production avoids carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. However, it has been suggested radioactive gas can cause health issues to workers and individuals from communities surrounding power plants. Furthermore, the disposal of nuclear waste is an even more controversial subject, and if one so much as utters the words ‘nuclear weapons’ they can expect a flurry of opinions to be launched at them more explosively than the warheads in question.

One of the primary materials involved in nuclear energy production and military use is uranium. In the wake of a tsunami striking a nuclear power station on the shores of Fukishima, Japan, the energy sector held a review on reactor designs and safety procedures. The resulting financial and psychological tidal wave had a detrimental effect on the industry, one which it is only slowly recovering from. As a consequence, despite offering vastly lower energy costs, uranium seems to have reached a political and environmental impasse and demand has plummeted. When combined with a lingering sense of distrust generated by incidents in Chernobyl, Ukraine (1986) and 3 Mile Island, U.S.A. (1979), and its association with nuclear proliferation throughout much of the 20th century, I was beginning to view uranium as a commodity too contentious to consider investing.

A colour photo of the dilapidated Ferris Wheel in Chernobyl's infamous abandoned playground.

However, after conducting my own research, I have concluded it is an area that can bring big returns to patient investors. The macro story is positive and encouraging. There are billions of USD being spent building new reactors across the world. New technologies mean small, more mobile reactors are being commissioned by countries who previously would have found themselves priced out. High profile individuals are vocal in their support, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk, and the vast scientific community adds additional endorsement to nuclear power being critical to the energy solution. Our current energy sources are not sufficient to cope with a rapidly increasing population and I feel nuclear power can be a green, affordable solution. 

…many of the world’s largest uranium mines are in care-and-maintenance mode.

The Uranium Cycle: I’ll be back.

Uranium is fundamental to the production of nuclear energy. However, current uranium spot prices remain far below what is economically viable to mine and produce ($23.90 as of 31/10/2019). Such market activity has depressed investment. Most of the (≈50) remaining uranium companies are struggling to stay afloat; many of the world’s largest uranium mines are in care-and-maintenance mode (1). These cold, hard facts lead prospective investors to one conclusion: why on earth would I want to invest in uranium? The answer remains the same as any other investment: it can make you money if you play your cards right.

I have studied numerous articles detailing different investment approaches to goods experiencing a low equity price. To me, the most attractive attitude towards uranium investment is the contrarian approach. After recognising where uranium is in its cycle, and the potential for an uptake in the future, this method seems prudent.

However, I can’t exactly go out and buy large quantities of uranium for myself; I wouldn’t want MI5 knocking on my door in the early hours of the morning. A wise investment will require choosing the right companies to invest in.

From an investor’s standpoint, there are 3 crucial elements a company requires to instil confidence in me, or any other investor. If any of these aspects are missing, I think the company is likely to falter and investment should be avoided. 

Investing in uranium: the secret recipe

The three ingredients are as follows:

  1. An experienced management team who have a proven track record for every process: mining, refinement and sale.
  2. Sufficient liquid assets to enable the company to survive until prices take an upturn.
  3. A genuine asset(s), not something purported to be an asset (such as a licence) that in reality is more restrictive to a company than beneficial.

Energy Fuels, the leading U.S. producer of uranium and potential producer of vanadium, has all three, but, perhaps most interestingly of all, it has an ace up its sleeve that is likely to be a real game-changer.

An Experienced Management Team

Uranium is an incredibly complicated commodity to work with. From permits, licences, safety, legislation, regulation, transportation to refinement there are numerous difficulties, not to mention the difficulty of mining itself. The sale of uranium is also far from straightforward, because the buyers are utility companies with long buying cycles and complex purchase criteria. If a management team has not already been through this process from start to finish, they are learning on the job with my money.

A colour photo of Energy Fuels CEO, Mark Chalmers.
Energy Fuels CEO, Mark Chalmers

Energy Fuels has a management team with an impressive résumé. Their CEO/President Mark Chalmers has been involved in the uranium industry since 1976. His vast experience would impart confidence to most investors. As a company, Energy Fuels has been operating since the 70s, and has nearly 40 years of experience mining and refining uranium. I find Energy Fuel’s established industry-related relationships and experience with uranium production/sales impressive.

Sufficient Cash

The brutal nature of the current market has created a tough environment for uranium companies. Murmurs from funds surround the need for price discovery: the spot price for uranium will need to start increasing before they will invest meaningful cash into companies again. It seems clear to me that utility companies have complete control of the timescale of any potential uranium price uptake. In the meantime, if a company lacks the cash to maintain their facilities, they will not be able to survive.

Handily, Energy Fuels has $40-45 million to see them through until uranium prices rise.  In a recent interview with Crux investor, Chalmers expressed a reason for investors to be hopeful of a price increase in the near future.  Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy are hopeful their petition to the United States Government under section 232 and the subsequent announcement of a 90-day Working Group may bear fruit.   

If the group’s report is favourable to the nuclear industry, it is possible President Trump could subsidise U.S. uranium companies via tax breaks and other federal financial boosts, thus allowing prices to rise and profit to be made for investors who climb aboard while prices are still low. However, despite Chalmers stating he would be “shocked” if the government doesn’t rule favourably towards the uranium sector, the judgement currently resides in a realm of definitive uncertainty; the group’s report may not be completed this year as other events take centre stage on the U.S. political platform.

Genuine Assets

A company’s assets are an excellent indicator of if my hard-earned cash will be worthily invested. Energy Fuels have a portfolio they regard as ‘truly unique.’ (2). They have ‘more production capacity, licensed mines and processing facilities, and in-ground uranium resources than any other U.S. producer.’ Energy Fuel’s 100% ownership of numerous promising mines across Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming gives them an excellent list of valuable assets.

Furthermore, in an interview with Crux Investor at the WNA, Chalmers explained the versatility of Energy Fuels. The company tries to ‘diversify,’ to ‘keep a strong balance sheet’ and ‘protect shareholders.’(3) The quantity of projects being undertaken by Energy Fuels helps reduce the risk of investment, as if one goes horribly wrong, there are plenty of alternative options to steady the ship.

The diversity of Energy Fuels is further exemplified by their status as the largest U.S vanadium producer. Vanadium has a variety of uses in engineering and redox flow batteries to name but a few. They also provide ‘low-cost environmental cleanup and uranium recycling services, including potential involvement in the EPA clean-up of Cold-War-era uranium mines.’ Investors can find their risk reduced because the company is clearly not a one-trick pony. Energy Fuels is not completely reliant on uranium.

The Game-Changer

When first mined, Uranium isn’t functional for nuclear energy or military use; it needs to be enriched to ≈20% for power and ≈85% for military use. The enrichment process requires the mined uranium ore to be processed in a mill. Energy Fuels own the only ‘fully-licensed and operating conventional uranium mill in the United States.’ (4). This means in the event of a uranium price increase they are the only company ready to go into production immediately. It also means that any competitor will be restricted at their leisure; companies will have to pay Energy Fuels for use of their mill, or face expensive shipping expenses to mills in foreign countries. Energy Fuels will also have control of the timescale of other companies’ uranium production. Chalmers has positioned the company strongly with an undeniable leg-up on the competition.

A photo of three nuclear cooling towers in action against the backdrop of a clear blue sky and a woodland area.

An Option I Could Seriously Consider

Upon conclusion of my research into the world of uranium companies, I have reached the conclusion Energy Fuels would be a potentially sensible investment. I don’t think any other American uranium producer comes close when the management team, business model, cash and bonus mill of Energy Fuels places them in such a commanding position. In the near future, I am likely to invest. I feel my money would be much better served waiting to grow with the sleeping giant of uranium than comatose in a bank account with less interest generated than a taxidermist’s dating profile.

If you see something in this article that you agree with, or even disagree with, please let us know in the comments below.

  1. https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/uram-2018-ebb-and-flow-the-economics-of-uranium-mining
  2. http://www.energyfuels.com/
  3. https://youtu.be/uj1VG8V3igs
  4. http://www.energyfuels.com/white-mesa-mill

Any advice contained in this website is general advice only and has been prepared without considering your objectives, financial situations or needs. You should not rely on any advice and / or information contained in this website or via any digital Crux Investor communications. We provide paid for consultancy services for Energy Fuels. Before making any investment decision we recommend that you consider whether it is appropriate for your situation and seek appropriate financial, taxation and legal advice.

A picture of the face of the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wears sunglasses and holds a gun up.