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- CRB Fundamentals - 2008 Commodity Articles


Cobalt (symbol Co) is a lustrous, silvery-white, magnetic, metallic element used chiefly for making alloys. Cobalt was known in ancient times and used by the Persians in 2250 BC to color glass. The name cobalt comes from the German word kobalt or kobold, meaning evil spirit. Miners gave cobalt its name because it was poisonous and troublesome since it polluted and degraded other mined elements, like nickel. In the 1730s, George Brandt first isolated metallic cobalt and was able to show that cobalt was the source of the blue color in glasses. In 1780, it was recognized as an element. Cobalt is generally not found in nature as a free metal and is instead found in ores. Cobalt is generally produced as a by-product of nickel and copper mining.

Cobalt is used in a variety of applications: high temperature steel alloys; fasteners in gas turbine engines; magnets and magnetic recording media; drying agents for paints and pigments; and steel-belted radial tires. Cobalt-60, an important radioactive tracer and cancer-treatment agent, is an artificially produced radioactive isotope of cobalt.

Prices - The price of cobalt rose sharply by +75.4% in 2007 to a new record high of $30.20 per pound. That is more than four times the 20-year low of $6.91 per pound in 2002, just seven years ago.

Supply - World production of cobalt in 2007 fell by 7.7% to 62,300 metric tons, down from last year's record high of 67,500 metric tons. The world's largest cobalt mine producers are the Congo with 36% of world production in 2007, Canada (13%), Australia (12%), Zambia (11%), and Canada (10%).

The U.S. does not specifically mine or refine cobalt although some cobalt is produced as a by-product of other mining operations. Imports, stock releases, and secondary materials comprise the U.S. cobalt supply. Secondary production includes extraction from super-alloy scrap, cemented carbide scrap, and spent catalysts. In the U.S. there are two domestic producers of extra-fine cobalt powder. One company produces the powder from imported primary metal and the other from recycled materials. There are seven companies that produce cobalt compounds. U.S. secondary production of cobalt in 2007 fell 0.5% yr/yr to 2,000 metric tons and remains well below the record high of 3,080 metric tons seen in 1998.

Demand - U.S. consumption of cobalt in 2007 fell by 18.9% yr/yr to 9,000 metric tons, down from the 2005 record high of 11,800 metric tons. The largest use of cobalt by far was for super-alloys with 3,630 metric tons of consumption in 2007, which was 33% of the total consumption. Other smaller-scaled applications for cobalt include cutting and wear-resistant materials (796 metric tons), magnetic alloys (299 metric tons), and welding materials (227 metric tons).

Trade - U.S. imports of cobalt in 2007 fell by 16.43% to 9,700 metric tons, down from last year's record high of 11,600 metric tons. In 2007 the U.S. relied on imports for 78% of its cobalt consumption, which is down from the 99% level seen in the early 1970s.

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