Should We Be Concerned About the Source of Cobalt Pigments?

Child labor, Artisan Mining in Kailo Congo

Well, yes, of course, but to what degree? I received a question from one of our retailers expressing deep concern about the source of cobalt used in artists’ pigments and paints.

I’m beginning to hear questions from customers about where various brands are sourcing their cobalt pigments due to information they are learning from news sources covering the issue of dangerous mines in the Democratic Republic of China [sic]. It sounds like 50% of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC, is refined in China, and is primarily purchased by consumers in the US. I’m contacting a few of our suppliers with the question and wanted to hear your thoughts and if this issue is also coming up for you.

The largest producer of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), accounting for roughly 70% of global production.[1] The country has been the top metal producer for some time and reported an output of 130,000 Metric Tonnes in 2022. Russia, Australia, Canada, and other countries follow this. China trails in the tenth position.

Refining and processing of cobalt ore take place in various locations around the world; China is the largest processor. The country that consumes the most cobalt is China. On a regional basis, China is the largest and fastest-growing cobalt consumer, with approximately 32% of global consumption in 2020. Second-ranked is Europe at about 23%, and the No.3 United States is at 18%.[5]

In the past (starting in 2012), the Democratic Republic of the Congo and certain countries surrounding the DRC have been identified as areas of concern about human rights violations, unfair labor practices, child labor, mining/sales controlled by armed groups, etc. More recently, China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has been identified as another region of concern. This list of areas of concern will likely expand in the future.

Cobalt Mining in Congo
Panorama of Cobalt Mine in Congo

It is a common practice in the industry for companies not to share specific information about their supply chain with customers and to keep the names of customers with suppliers confidential. Pigment manufacturing companies do not purchase cobalt ore, but rather the starting materials for making cobalt pigments are highly refined cobalt compounds (cobalt oxide, cobalt acetate, etc.) before it enters pigment manufacturers. We contacted our cobalt pigment suppliers, and to their knowledge, they do not directly source products from any areas of conflict or concern. However, since these businesses are several steps removed from the mining and processes where these violations may occur, they cannot ensure, with 100% certainty, that this is the case all the way down the suppliers’ supply chain.

The silver-gray mineral carrollite is a compound of sulfur, copper, and cobalt.

The silver-gray mineral carrollite is a compound of sulfur, copper, and cobalt.

One thing to keep in mind is that the use of cobalt for pigment manufacturing is one of its most minor uses worldwide. On a global basis, the leading use of cobalt is in rechargeable battery electrodes. Superalloys, used to make parts for gas turbine engines, are another important use for cobalt. Cobalt is also used to make airbags in automobiles; catalysts for the petroleum and chemical industries; cemented carbides (also called hardmetals) and diamond tools; corrosion- and wear-resistant alloys; drying agents for paints, varnishes, and inks; dyes and pigments; ground coats for porcelain enamels; high-speed steels; magnetic recording media; magnets; and steel-belted radial tires.

The amount of cobalt used in batteries for electric vehicles, tablets, and smartphones amounts to 57% of the total global consumption of this mineral.[2] It isn't easy to find the amount of cobalt consumed worldwide to make complex inorganic pigments, but on one graph, it appears to be less than 10%.[3] I would argue that the amount is even less. The market size for these pigments was only $337.4 million in 2020.[4] That’s minuscule in terms of the total consumption of cobalt. Complex inorganic pigments are only partly composed of cobalt; many do not contain cobalt. On top of that, the amount of complex inorganic pigments used in artists’ materials is a fraction of that total—likely less than 1%. So, becoming overly concerned about the source of cobalt in artists’ materials risks being “penny wise and pound foolish.”

We should focus on the things that consume more cobalt: our smartphones, tablets, and notebooks (and electric cars). Those are the items we need to be concerned about and investigate.

What is Cobalt

Cobalt is a brittle, gray metal with a lustrous appearance and is well-known for producing a vibrant blue hue in paints and glass. It is widely used to manufacture rechargeable batteries and to create alloys that maintain their strength even at high temperatures. In addition, cobalt is an essential trace element required for optimal health in humans and other living organisms. Cobalt has significant applications in aerospace, defense, and medical sectors and is integral to numerous clean energy technologies. The name “cobalt” has its roots in the German word “kobold,” which means “goblin.” This name was given by medieval miners who believed that troublesome goblins replaced the valuable metals in their ore with a substance that emitted poisonous fumes when smelted.

How Cobalt is Used

In the past, cobalt was primarily used to create blue pigments in ceramics and glass. However, cobalt has found a multitude of applications in modern times. In the United States alone, about 50% of the cobalt used in 2010 was for producing superalloys. Superalloys are highly resistant to corrosion and maintain their strength even at extremely high temperatures. They are utilized in various applications, including gas turbine engines, space vehicles, chemical and petroleum plants, and power plants. Cobalt’s magnetic properties are also impressive, and it can maintain its magnetic strength at temperatures as high as 1,121°C. As a result, cobalt is a vital component in the magnets used in electric motors and computer disc drives. This enables them to operate efficiently at a wide range of temperatures.

Rechargeable batteries are the most significant application of cobalt on a global scale. Cobalt is used in rechargeable batteries to increase battery life, enhance stability, and reduce corrosion. Many electronic devices, including mobile phones, portable computers, and hybrid and electric vehicles, rely on rechargeable batteries that use cobalt. Furthermore, cobalt plays an essential role in the health of humans and animals. It is an essential element in vitamin B12, which is necessary for proper brain function and the formation of red blood cells.

What is the Source of Cobalt

The origin and source of cobalt are intriguing subjects. While pure cobalt is not found in nature, cobalt is present in other minerals, such as carrollite, skutterudite, and asbolane, in association with other elements. The majority of cobalt is derived from copper and nickel ore processing. Cobalt can be found in three types of ore deposits: sediment-hosted stratiform copper deposits in regions such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia, magmatic nickel sulfide deposits in places like Sudbury, Canada, and Norilsk, Russia, and nickel laterite deposits found in tropical regions such as New Caledonia. Although cobalt can also be found in manganese nodules and crusts on the deep seafloor, mining is not currently occurring in those locations. Sediment-hosted copper deposits are created when salt-bearing fluids draw out metals, such as copper and cobalt, from oxidized sediments. If the fluids mix with reduced rock, oil, or natural gas, copper and cobalt minerals will deposit. Magmatic nickel sulfide deposits form when magma enriched in magnesium and iron becomes sulfur-saturated. Among other metals in the magma, nickel, and cobalt may migrate into a separate sulfide-rich fluid that settles into the magma chamber bottom, resulting in metal sulfide deposits. Laterite deposits occur in humid, tropical, or subtropical environments where igneous rocks with little silica content are weathered chemically, concentrating cobalt in the weathered rock.

Global Supply and Demand of Cobalt

In 2010, the United States primarily imported cobalt from China, Russia, Norway, Finland, and other countries, and recycled materials met a quarter of its consumption. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) holds almost half of the world’s cobalt reserves, approximately 3.4 million metric tons. Countries like Australia, Cuba, and New Caledonia also have significant cobalt reserves. About half of the world’s cobalt production in 2010 came from the DRC, with China, Russia, and Zambia contributing a quarter of the global production. China was the largest producer of refined cobalt in 2010, using domestic ores and imported materials from the DRC.


[1] Distribution of cobalt consumption worldwide in 2020, by region. Last accessed March 7, 2023.

[2] Cobalt Use: Cobalt is used in a wide variety of applications. Cobalt Institute. Last accessed March 7, 2023

[3] Cobalt Market to Get Hotter Spurred by Mounting Demand. Market Publishers. Last accessed March 7, 2023

[4] Complex Inorganic Color Pigments Market Size, Share and Industry Analysis Report by Product (Cobalt-based, Titanate-based, Iron-based, Nickel Manganese-based, Chromium-based) and Application (Paints & Coatings, Glass, Concrete, Plastics), Regional Outlook Growth Potential, Competitive Market Share & Forecast, 2021 – 2027. Global market Insights. Last accessed March 7, 2023.

[5] Global and China Cobalt Market Report, 2021-2026 - Batteries are the Largest Consumer of Cobalt with a Share of Approx 57%, Followed by Nickel-Based Alloys with 14%. Globe News Wire. Last accessed March 7, 2023

For more information about cobalt: Cobalt—For Strength and Color