Global car makers who are scrambling for supply of battery metal cobalt could instead turn to the millions of old smartphones lying in our drawers.

Recycling of the estimated 1.6bn in old phones could provide cobalt to meet demand from millions of electric vehicles, according to Belgium-based Umicore, one of the largest producers of battery materials, who expect it to become a growing source for the industry.

“There is an amazing mine of cobalt that is totally untapped,” said Marc Grynberg, chief executive of Umicore, which produces cathodes for electric car batteries.

Mr Grynberg says around 10 per cent of global cobalt production goes into smartphones, which is “lost forever.”

Carmakers are growing increasingly anxious about securing supply of cobalt, a silver-grey metal that doubled in price last year. Over half of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo before it is sent to China to be refined for use in batteries.

Last year Volkswagen issued a tender for five years supply of the metal as it plans to become a world leader in electric cars.

There are around 1.6bn phones languishing in people’s drawers, according to Dutch company Fairphone, which recycles old phones.

“We have billions of dismissed end-of-life smartphones …. That could be utilised to power millions of electric vehicles. Millions,” Mr Grynberg said. “If there is one thing that needs to be done in the first place starting now is to make sure there are mechanisms in place to motivate people to return their disused smartphones.”

These could include a non-refundable deposit on the purchase of a phone, Mr Grynberg said. Only around 5 to 10 per cent of smartphones are collected for re-use and recycling, he said.

“Recycling does exist and does work, it is collection that doesn’t work,” he said.

Cobalt demand from EVs is set to rise from to 95,000 tonnes by 2026 from 12,000 tonnes last year, according to consultancy CRU.

There will be enough cobalt to meet electric car demand over the next few years, but recycling will start to make up a growing portion of supply in a decade, Mr Grynberg estimates.

In two decades recycled cobalt will be “a significant portion” of Umicore’s feed material, he added.

Umicore’s shares have risen by 18 per cent year-to-date to a record high of €47.

(This post has been updated to correct the share price.)

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