Black mass demand in South Korea gets further support from battery raw materials prices

Increased prices for key battery raw materials such as nickel, cobalt and lithium are continuing to assist demand for shredded nickel cobalt manganese (NCM) lithium-ion batteries

Low supply and improved buying interest for cobalt has led to Fastmarkets’ benchmark cobalt standard grade, in-whs Rotterdam rising steadily throughout the month of June.

Prices for lithium hydroxide in the cif China, Japan, Korea market have continued to trade at their highest levels since April 2023, while prices in the Europe and US market for the same material have showed signs of life and also moved up to their highest since April.

Intake of black mass has risen at some major Korean processors in recent weeks in line with higher demand for battery raw materials, sources told Fastmarkets. These processors are typically able to produce materials such as lithium hydroxide, cobalt hydroxide or nickel mixed hydroxide precipitate from black mass.

A South Korean consumer source told Fastmarkets this week that demand for battery raw materials was going up but that some black mass offer prices were coming in too high to conclude deals.

Offers for NCM black mass were heard at around 81% cif South Korea for nickel and cobalt – including the value of lithium, they said. This was for material of lithium content in the range of 3-5%, the source said, but only around 75% cif was workable from the buyer side for this material, they added.

Higher lithium pricing recently is increasing pressure on buyers in markets such as South Korea to provide separate lithium payables for black mass rather than the traditional method of including the value of lithium in the nickel and cobalt payables, although several buyers are still resisting this currently. In recent days, Fastmarkets has heard of assessments at about 7-10% for lithium payables based on black mass of 3-4% lithium content.

A European trading source reported workable payables of around 70-73% cif South Korea for nickel and cobalt, including the value of lithium, in the week to Wednesday June 21, while a Southeast Asia consumer source agreed with this valuation.

A deal for NCM black mass was heard at 72% cif South Korea for nickel and cobalt, including the value of lithium in the last seven days.

Fastmarkets’ assessments of the black mass, NCM/NCA, payable indicator, cobalt, cif South Korea, % payable Fastmarkets’ standard-grade cobalt price (low-end) and the black mass, NCM/NCA, payable indicator, nickel, cif South Korea, % payable LME Nickel cash official price were both 70-75% on Wednesday, up by 3 percentage points from 67-72% week on week.

A Singapore-based trading source pointed out that the position of China in black mass importing will have an important role to play in pricing moving forward.

Several sources have reported to Fastmarkets over the past fortnight that Chinese authorities are clamping down further on imports of black mass – which are officially banned because they are viewed as a waste product.

Despite that, Fastmarkets has heard of Chinese-owned companies claiming they are able to import the material although no single harmonized system (HS) code is known to cover the material.

“Chinese buyers want black mass as there is a shortage in that market. If authorities don’t relax their rules, then payables could still rise because Chinese companies need to buy more black mass into Southeast Asian [for processing into intermediary products which can be imported to China],” a Singapore-based trader source said.

If authorities in China relax import rules because they recognize the importance of securing critical battery raw materials through the secondary route, payables to South Korea will rise sharply, they said.

The only way they saw payables dropping for black mass in Asia over the short term is if there is a drop in demand in key markets such as Korea or Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines, they added.

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