Ready to recharge: A battery metals quarterly perspective 

The pricing lull in the battery metals space frustrated many towards the back end of 2023 as the world prepared for a new year.

Despite their ubiquitous applications across technologies and everyday life such as appliances, electric vehicles, battery storage devices, wind turbines, and even nuclear reactors, all needed to usher in the global energy transition, in recent times battery metals prices seemingly didn’t reflect their broader economic values and importance. 

As Minerals Council of Australia CEO Tania Constable tells Mining.com.au: “Nickel, lithium, rare earth, copper, coal, iron ore and cobalt, all of those are a little bit at risk.”

with Q1 2024 coming to an end many industry executives remain optimistic that prices across the sector are poised for a recharge. 

This quarterly review assesses the performance of the key battery metals with lithium excluded as it’s review will be published tomorrow as a standalone.

Nickel and dimes

Nickel, one of the top 5 most common and most versatile elements on earth — found in stainless steel, batteries, and non-ferrous alloys — was the worst-performing metal on the London Metal Exchange (LME) at the back end of 2023, as reported by Mining.com.au

By 4 December 2023, spot prices were down 45% from its early January 2023 peak of US$30,958 per tonne. 

Australia’s nickel industry in particular continued to absorb blows and  hardships throughout the early months of 2024, with a wave of mine closures taking hold of the nation, primarily in the nation’s mining capital of Western Australia.

One such mine was Canada’s First Quantum Minerals’ (TSX:FM) $2.2 billion Ravensthorpe Nickel Mine, which saw only 4 years of mining activity before being mothballed once again. 

Up to 30% of the 420-strong workforce is expected to be cut while mining is suspended. 

Less than a month later BHP (ASX:BHP) issued a warning it was considering mothballing its entire Western Australia operation, affecting more than 3,000 workers.

Western Australia Premier Roger Cook explained to Mining.com.au in January the suspension of Ravensthorpe was a firm reminder of the cyclical commodity price fluctuations and other market factors beyond our control. 

Echoing these sentiments was Western Mines Group (ASX:WMG) Managing Director Dr Caedmon Marriott, who says what the market is experiencing is the interplay of the nickel cost curve with the metal price. 

In response to nickel’s dire performance, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made a move to class it as a critical mineral, while WA’s Premier announced the state government would begin offering royalty relief to the state’s nickel industry. 

This relief — dubbed the Nickel Financial Assistance Program — was designed to deliver a 50% royalty rebate for 18 months, when prices are below the US$20,000 per tonne, repayable over 24 months.  

Marriott notes that while a challenging time a potential rebound is on the cards. 

Fast forward to 8 March, nickel witnessed a 13.63% increase since February, sitting around US$18,000 per tonne, up from its lowest point of US$15,445 per tonne as of 6 February, says Trading Economics.

However, as of 26 March, nickel dropped 4.69% back down to US$16,418 per tonne.  

Keen eye on cobalt 

As with most of its battery metal cousins, cobalt has also seen a bearish start to 2024.  

An oversupply in the cobalt hydroxide market is expected to continue in 2024 after a surplus of material pressured prices during Q4 2023. 

The ramping up of refined cobalt production in China was also expected to weigh upon metal prices during Q1 2024, especially on chemical-grade materials.  

Despite a peak price of $8.50 per pound on 19 October 2023 and remaining flat until 2 November, cobalt hydroxide prices weakened to $6.50 per pound by 19 December — a 23.5% drop and a record low since Platts assessment launch in 2020. 

To put it into perspective, a price level less than $7 per pound is considered below the production cost of some miners and producers. 

The first weeks of January saw cobalt hydroxide prices slowly increasing, exemplified by a trade for 100 million tonnes of cobalt hydroxide done on 5 January at $7 per pound CIF China, before offers dropped down to $6.80 to $7 per pound basis CIF China.

S&P Global’s ‘World Exploration Trends 2024’ report forecasts cobalt to be the outperformer of 2024, with the only expected price increase likely to be helped by supply discipline. 

Downturn? Zinc again!

For anyone plugged meaningfully into the global zinc market, 2023 might be a year they want to forget.

Similar to what’s playing out with nickel, when the price of zinc hit a 3-year low of $2,215 in May last year, it triggered a string of global mine closures, with Macquarie Bank analysts at the time estimating a production wipeout of 300,000 tonnes annually.

At US$2,389 per tonne, the price of zinc has — as of 11 December 2023 — had fallen more than 26% since the start of last year, with strong production and weak demand leading to a widening surplus, as reported by this news service.

S&P also notes the softening of zinc prices, like nickel, put considerable strain on mine profitability, with miners temporarily shuttering operations. In turn this could provide some upside to prices, but global refined demand is tied to China’s property sector, which is yet to gain momentum. 

Further, muted consumption in the US and Europe has led to the accumulation of London Metal Exchange zinc inventories and the tempering of investor sentiment. As such, demand uncertainty largely underpins S&P’s expectations of a widening refined surplus, thus bringing prices down from last year. 

Zinc entered 2024 trading above the $2,500 per tonne line, however, by the start of February the price of zinc saw a sharp decline to $2,300 per tonne, as shown by Trading Economics. 

But this decline was merely temporary, as the blush-white, shiny metal soon rebounded back to a touch over the $2,550 mark at the start of March. 

Since then, zinc has been on a downward trajectory, currently sitting at $2,439 per tonne as of 27 March. 

In a meeting in October, the International Lead and Zinc Study Group’s (ILZSG) statistics committee reversed its April 2023 prediction the global zinc market would register a minor supply deficit of 45,000 tonnes in 2023.

It now expects supply will exceed usage by 248,000 tonnes before increasing to 367,000 tonnes in 2024.

Graphite garnering attention

One commodity that garnered global attention towards the back end of 2023 was the soft, black, lustrous mineral graphite. 

On 20 October 2023, and in response to widened US controls, China announced a new set of export restrictions on certain graphite products. China currently dominates the world supply but its share will decrease due to the implementation of mining regulation plans and developing downstream, says Merchant Researching & Consulting. 

Being a lightweight, naturally soft element with metallic and nonmetallic properties, it is ideal for various industrial applications. 

It is currently used as an anode in batteries, as a refractory material in industries producing molten metal for crucibles and blast furnace linings, and to replace asbestos in brake shoes for heavier vehicles. It is also a key commodity in the development of lithium-ion batteries, and in turn, EVs. 

According to Wood Mackenzie’s ‘Global graphite short-term outlook February 2024’, the worst may be over for graphite prices after what was a ‘challenging’ 2023.  The decline in prices slowed in January 2024 and was relatively unchanged in February, due to production slowdowns, in turn creating headwinds for moves higher. 

However, higher synthetic graphite prices, coupled with a combination of rising oil prices, shifting refinery flow sheets, and potential higher energy prices in China due to drought, could push the anode material market back towards spherical graphite. 

Eventually, the global data provider says this should filter down the value chain to battery-grade flakes. 

What’s more, Wood Mackenzie adds an accelerating demand for graphite is not currently reflected in its price despite all regions setting new sales and market penetration records in 2023. 

This could be changing, given that delays to the new Chinese graphite export licences deplete stockpiles, the value of the material delivered into Europe is rising. This should continue throughout the year as the market restocks and demand steadily improves. 

As such, improving demand incentivises more utilisation of existing capacity, Wood Mackenzie still anticipates higher prices. 

The graphite market size sat at $1.2 billion by the end of 2023 but, as outlined in The Business Research Group’s ‘Graphite Global Market Report 2024’ the market will grow to $1.3 billion at a compound annual growth rate of 8.1% due to demand from the steel, battery and energy storage, refractories and foundry, and automotive markets.

Making of manganese 

Unlike its counterparts in the battery space, and despite being one of the most ancient metals in modern history, manganese seems to be only now finding its feet in the 21st century. 

As detailed by Mining.com.au in a recent sector overview, manganese is emerging as a battery metal, but unlike metals such as nickel, lithium, and graphite, its use is minimal compared to steelmaking due to the market being driven by the production of ferro-alloys that include silico and ferro manganese, which feed into the manufacturing of crude steel. 

In 2024, ore prices could be on track for a moderate rise to about US$520 per tonne before falling again with some analysts forecasting a drop to about $495 by year-end. 

As put by S&P Global Market Intelligence data, the price of 32% grade manganese ore at China’s Tianjin port in mid-February was up from a multi-year low but remained down 17% year-on-year. 

In the past year the price of manganese was sitting around 5-year cyclical lows – equivalent to the marginal cost of production out of South Africa – a forthcoming price rise may be in line with projections of a technical rebound.

On the cards, says the World Steel Association, is 1.9% growth in global steel demand in 2024 on the back of 1.8% growth in 2023. The association forecasts steel demand will reach 1.849 billion tonnes.

With this forecast in mind, manganese-focused Black Canyon (ASX:BCA) Executive Director Brendan Cummins believes while nickel and lithium have their time in the spotlight, lesser known metals such as manganese will emerge as a more cost effective option.

The price of manganese varies depending on the specific type and region. It’s price catalysts vary on a range of different factors to that of nickel or lithium, for example.

As of 25 March, Manganese Ore Index 37% Price (FOB Port Elizabeth/US$ per dmtu) was sitting at US$3.06.

“Investors recognise that lithium and nickel rare now energy minerals and integral to the energy transition and reducing carbon. Within NMC and LFP batteries nickel and lithium are a critical cost component of an EV battery which cannot be substituted so they are an important link in the current supply chain”, Cummins tells this news service.

“However, there is a pressure by battery manufacturers to reduce costs or move battery chemistries away from nickel and lithium so they are not so reliant on those commodities so they can make a cheaper battery with more widely available and cheaper inputs materials.”

Cummins adds the past 12 months has seen manganese pricing touch 5-year cyclical lows to basically the marginal cost of production out of South Africa.

While steel production has likely plateaued with a slowdown in China, crude steel production is still in order of 2 billion tonnes per year so at least 20 million of manganese will be required.

So going forward there should be further improvements in manganese demand and pricing especially if there are supply issues from South Africa and manganese smelter capacity from the Ukraine is affected by the ongoing war with Russia.

When asked what the catalyst would be for the market to shift its gaze onto this lesser known metal, Black Canyon’s Cummins says the dependency of the US and Europe on Chinese manganese sulphate could see both jurisdictions seeking alternate options in the near future.

Manganese minerals for batteries are processed almost exclusively in China so any supply hiccups from China will impact pricing. For example China controls global REE and dominates graphite supply and they have reduced or ceased supply to the west so if similar was to happen with manganese this would shift focus for sure.

In the US this is being further driven by the IRA where currently 40% of raw material inputs must be sourced from the USA or FTA countries like Australia. This grows by 10% every year until 80% is achieved in 2027. If an OEM is not compliant with its requirement it will be unable to get the subsidies.

The emergence of higher manganese content batteries such as LFMP and High Lithium Manganese (HLM) batteries could certainly increase the focus on the importance of manganese. EV uptake is probably slower than originally projected and LFP batteries don’t contain manganese but if LFMP batteries more or less replace LFP batteries in the low to mid-range costing vehicle (largest segment of the car market) this will open up the requirement for HPMSM significantly.”

Vouching for vanadium

Sharing some similarities with manganese is vanadium, the silvery-grey, soft, and ductile metal which one could find primarily used with iron to make metal alloys for high-strength steel production. 

It is this material which makes up the base for gas and oil pipelines, tool steel, jet engines, the manufacture of axles and crankshafts for motor vehicles, as well as for reinforcing bars in building and construction.  

Outside of machinery, vanadium is also used in the production of ceramics and electronics, textile dyes, fertilisers, synthetic rubber, welding, as well as alloys used in nuclear engineering and superconductors. 

However, vanadium, like manganese, is demonstrating its importance as an emerging battery metal. Vanadium chemicals and catalysts can also be utilised in the development of fuel cells such as vanadium redox flow batteries and low-charge-time, lightweight batteries.

The silvery-grey metal is also not found in its metallic form in nature but occurs in more than 60 minerals as a trace element in a range of rock types, and is sold as vanadium pentoxide (V2O5).  

Nearly all of the world’s vanadium is derived from mineral concentrates separated from mined ore, with China, South Africa, and Russia paving the way in terms of production. According to Merchant Research & Consulting, these 3 nations account for 85% of world mine production. 

Being tied to the steel industry, the vanadium market is economically vulnerable owing to its sensitivity to market demand by developing countries. 

Merchant Research & Consulting suggests the steel industry will remain the main driver of the world vanadium market in the next couple of years.

The research and consulting firm acknowledges a decline in metal prices has led to renewed interest in researching the production of vanadium redox batteries.

It is believed any breakthrough in this area will lead to a ‘significant’ increase in demand for vanadium which, in turn, may cause some tightness and again increase in prices.  

Vanadium

Providing his own insights into what vanadium has to offer is vanadium-focused Viking Mines’ (ASX:VKA) Managing Director Julian Woodcock who has witnessed an uptick in the ferro vanadium price — the form of vanadium linked to iron — and pinpoints that we are currently sitting at the lows of the vanadium pricing. 

In turn, an uptake could soon be on the horizon, Woodcock explains to Mining.com.au.   

“Vanadium took quite a bit of a drop during 2023. Certainly at the beginning of last year we were back around $14 – $15 a pound for V2O5 flake at the start of the year. And I think we’re probably down around $9 or $10 a pound at the moment. So not 50% drops, but it’s definitely seen sort of substantial drops. So I think we’re coming off a bit of a lower base looking at the markets at the moment. 

Interestingly, there’s been a disconnect between the Chinese pricing and the European pricing. The Chinese pricing has fallen further, the European pricing is steady and I believe

this is related to there’s a greater uptake of vanadium batteries in China and I think there’s poorer quality vanadium being produced in China, and so the price in China really reflects the market being a bit more flooded with lower quality of the commodity.

I’d like to think that we’re seeing sort of the lows of vanadium pricing. So I would like to think there’s a turnaround on the horizon

So whilst the prices are not necessarily good for producers, the lower pricing should be beneficial towards reducing costs of vanadium batteries, which in turn could help support the uptake of them as a commercially viable solution to the issues with energy storage. 

I’d like to think that we’re seeing sort of the lows of vanadium pricing. So I would like to think there’s a turnaround on the horizon.”

Echoing these sentiments is Critical Minerals Group (ASX:CMG) Managing Director Scott Winter who told Mining.com.au at this year’s Brisbane Mining and Investors Conference, the emergence of vanadium redox flow batteries is one to watch.

“Vanadium is only early tech, but it’s starting to position itself more than just in the vanadium redox flow batteries. So different rates of lithium in solid state have a duration up to 3 hours. Vanadium flow batteries, long duration, safe, they’re sort of 3 to 10-12 hours. So they’re a different use model. There’s a bit of an overlap, but it’s a different use. 

I think it’s early days today for vanadium batteries, but we know that there’s over 7.5 gigawatts that are getting produced today that’s only growing. And China’s producing more and more, and Europe and the US are picking up.”

Winter expects the price of vanadium pentoxide to be influenced by the battery storage space rather than just the alloy space. 

“As long as we sort of maintain our low cost producing capability in Q1, then I think we’ll just survive through the cycles. So I see that’s one major factor. The other one is that if we produce a bit of a multiplier on the vanadium price and a better control on the market price, and we can talk to end user battery companies about long term offtake agreements and that starts to set price, give a bit of stability on price.”

Woodcock is also very familiar with vanadium’s ties to the steel market and its economic vulnerability.  

“Notwithstanding all the other issues with the global economy and steel, one thing vanadium is heavily linked to is the steel sector. So if you see a downturn in economies that reduces construction, essentially you see a reduction in the demand for vanadium. There’s so many aspects in play that it’s very difficult to say. 

Like the lithium sector, you’d never have expected the drops that we’ve seen recently, and that probably reflects the hype around the EVs and then the uptake hasn’t quite transpired, so the demand for the commodity has reduced.”

Viking Mines recently revealed plans to follow up drilling to improve the current Mineral Resource Estimate (MRE) at its flagship Canegrass Battery Minerals Project in Western Australia ahead of a planned Scoping Study, as reported by this news service.

The company is looking to produce a V2O5 flake product at Canegrass to feed into the emerging and aforementioned vanadium redox flow batteries. 

“I’m really excited about the opportunity we have in that area. Even with the backdrop of the lithium sector, our strategy within Viking has and always will be to advance projects that we believe are going to make it through to being a viable mine,” Woodcock says.

“You’d expect anyone in the resources sector to have that, but my take is there’s quite a few companies out there that just are working ground that has really limited prospectivity and the likelihood of them finding substantial discoveries is reduced. That’s really the filter that I always have when I’m looking at projects and discussing it with the board, ‘does this project have the ability to turn Viking into a $100 million dollar plus company’?

And for that reason we’re backing this project because we believe it has the potential.”

It could be argued that in the grand scheme of things the battery metals market also has potential that is perhaps on the cusp of fully being realised.

The executives polled by Mining.com.au all agree that from cobalt to graphite, lithium to manganese, nickel to vanadium, and even zinc there remains demand for these battery metals and an inherent need for more operations that mine them to come online.

With 2024 fully underway and a new quarter beginning, could the battery metals recharge have already started or are some metals poised to stay plugged into life support for a while longer?

Write to Adam Drought at Mining.com.au

Images: Black Canyon, Viking Mines, Cobalt Blue, Sarytogan Graphite
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Written By Adam Drought
Born and raised in the UK, Adam is a sports fanatic with an interest in Rugby League and UFC/MMA. When not training in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Adam attends Griffith University where he is completing his final year of a Communication & Journalism degree.