China's consumption of cobalt is expected to rise at least 3-4 percent this year because of strong demand from cellphone batteries, even though demand from other sectors may fall in the face of the global economic slowdown, an official at a refiner said on Wednesday.
But output may fall this year as low prices are discouraging producers from running full rates, which could cut exports from China, the world's top producer and consumer of cobalt.
China consumed 5.3 percent more cobalt at 13,519 tonnes last year, nearly a quarter of world demand, said Yang Zhai, marketing manager at Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Co Ltd.
"Consumption should rise by more than 3-4 percent as demand from cellphones increases, particularly with the development of the 3G," Zhai told Reuters at the sidelines of a minor metals conference in Hong Kong.
Production of lithium cobalt oxide, which is used in batteries for cellphones, would rise by more than 5 percent this year from 5,478 tonnes last year, he predicted. That demand had taken up nearly half of China's cobalt consumption.
To develop China's new third generation (3G) mobile networks, the government has estimated that the country's three telecom carriers would spend $58.5 billion over the next three years.
With the expansion in 3G networks, ZTE Corp (0763.HK)(000063.SZ), the world's sixth largest cellphone maker, aims to raise revenue by a double-digit percentage this year.
Zhai said cobalt demand from the production of a catalyst, which was used in an oil product called purified terephthalic acid (PTA), would rise as oil prices stablised.
Demand from the sector, which accounted for 6 percent of the country's total consumption of cobalt, fell 29 percent to 950 tonnes last year due to sharp falls in oil prices.
But production of cobalt may fall this year from 20,000 tonnes last year, a third of the world's output, as producers have slowed or shut production on weak prices of the metal, Zhai said.
He estimated about 6,000 tonnes of cobalt stocks had been carried to this year.
Spot refined cobalt with purity more than 99.6 percent traded at about 305,000 yuan per tonne in Shanghai on Wednesday, down 63 percent from a year earlier but up 9 percent this year.
Spot cobalt cathode COB-CATH-LON in London is trading around $16 per pound, down from more than $46 in the first half of last year.
China would continue to rely on imported material as feed for the production of refined cathode as local mines produced about only 1,000 of metal this year, he said.