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Assessing the circular economy potential of cobalt in the UK, Business School, PhD-studentship

   The Business School

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  Prof Markus Zils, Prof Mickey Howard  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Research Project Summary:

Cobalt is an essential metal to enable the achievement of decarbonisation of essential clean energy and transportation solutions. Projected demand is exceeding current production rates. Establishing circular economy principles could reduce the supply risks and allow the establishment of more UK-based activities in Cobalt value chains. Objective of the PhD-studentship is to assess the potential of such CE-interventions in the UK as part of the David Weight Cobalt Scholarship.

Project Description:

Cobalt is an essential metal used in a range of metallurgical and chemical applications. One of the largest end use shares of cobalt is in the manufacture of cathodes for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), a key technology for the transition towards decarbonisation. LIBs are used in several products including portable electronics, medical devices, energy storage and electric vehicles. However, cobalt is also found in a range of alloys, permanent magnets, hard metals, catalysts, pigments and many more [1]. Cobalt is a critical metal [2], commonly produced as a by-product and its extraction is linked with human rights' abuses [3]. The projected demand for cobalt in clean energy technologies would require an increase in production by 70% in 2040 compared to 2020 [4]. The recovery and use of cobalt from end-of-life products can mitigate part of the issue associated with primary supply. However, circular economy routes for cobalt as well as many other technology metals are not well established, and more in-depth investigation is needed to quantify the anthropogenic resources and to identify business opportunities for the circular economy to develop. For example, according to IEA, spent electric vehicle batteries reaching the end of their first life is expected to become significant from 2030 onwards, when demand for cobalt will still be growing [4]. In addition, instruments such as the EU sustainable batteries regulations bring in a mandatory declaration of recycled content and set mandatory minimum levels of recycled content in LIBs (12% cobalt by 2030), as well as material recovery targets (90% cobalt by 2026). These are expected to gradually increase as time passes [5]. It therefore becomes apparent that for the UK to proceed with battery manufacture and EV deployment, the supply of not just primary supply but secondary supply of cobalt would become an essential component of their supply chain.

However, our understanding of the cobalt resources in end-of-life products is limited and not properly quantified to inform strategic decision making. In this project we propose to undertake the following actions:

• Assessment and quantification of the UK anthropogenic resources of cobalt through stocks and flows modelling.This would require a detailed analysis of the end-of-life streams of cobalt bearing products, including their fate within/outside the UK and a resource estimation.

• Researching and evaluating the business landscape for a circular economy cobalt ecosystem in the UK.

The PhD will work closely with the Cobalt Institute and Members, as well as the Circular economy Centre on Technology Metals (Met4Tech), the Circular Economy Network + in Transportation Systems (CENTS) and other related research projects.

Note – special Terms of agreement between the British Geological Survey, Cobalt Institute, University of Exeter and Student.

The Student keeps a secure archive of physical materials and data at the University that can be used by the University and BGS for future research should the Student leave without completing a Thesis.

If required by the University, BGS or CI, the Thesis will be placed on restricted access for a period to be agreed.

The Student shall submit a draft Thesis to the Academic Supervisor, CI Supervisor and BGS Supervisor at least thirty (30) days prior to the date for submission for examination.

To the extent that the Arising Intellectual Property is generated or developed by BGS and/or CI jointly with the University and/or the Student, then it shall vest in and be owned jointly by BGS and/or CI with the University in proportions equal to their contributions.

To the extent that the Arising Intellectual Property is generated or developed by the University and/or the Student, without intellectual contribution of BGS or CI, then it shall vest in and be owned absolutely by the University.

BGS and CI hereby grants to the University and the Student a royalty-free irrevocable, non-transferable, non-exclusive licence to use the BGS and CI Arising Intellectual Property or any jointly-owned Arising Intellectual Property for their own non-commercial activities such as teaching and scientific or clinical research.

Entry Requirements:

You should have or expect to achieve at least a 2:1 Honours degree, or international equivalent, in business administration, economics, sustainability and logistics and transportation, geology and have obtained, or be currently working towards, a Master’s degree at Merit level or international equivalent Experience in business administration, economics, value chain modelling, life cycle assessment, circular economy, transportation systems is desirable.

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the English language requirements and provide proof of proficiency. Click here for more information and a list of acceptable alternative tests.

How to apply:

You will be asked to submit some personal details and upload a full CV, covering letter, details of two academic referees, and if relevant, proof of your English language proficiency, by midnight Tuesday 24th May 2022.

Your covering letter should outline your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake this project.

You will also be asked to upload verified transcripts of your most academic qualification.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

You must arrange for your referees to email their references to [Email Address Removed] from their institutional email accounts by the application deadline. Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted by your referees. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

Interviews will be held at remotely week commencing 6th June 2022.

Funding Notes

UK and International tuition fees and an annual maintenance allowance at current Research Council rate of £16,062.00 per year


[1] Petavratzi, E, Gunn, G, Kresse, C. (2019). Commodity review: Cobalt. British Geological Survey. Available at: https://www2.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/statistics/rawMaterialsForALowCarbonFuture.html
[2] European Commission. 2020. Study on the review of the list of Critical Raw Materials. [online] Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/raw-materials/specific-interest/critical_en
[3] Amnesty International. 2016. "This is what we die for". Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt. [online] London, U.K.: Available at: https://www.amnestyusa.org/files/this_what_we_die_for_-_report.pdf .
[4] IEA. 2021. The Role of critical of minerals in clean energy transitions. Available at: https://www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions
[5] European Commission. 2020. REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL concerning batteries and waste batteries, repealing Directive 2006/66/EC and amending Regulation (EU) No 2019/1020. Available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52020PC0798

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