In a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks last year, there was mention of a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The document revealed that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security considered this mine so vital that its “incapacitation or destruction … would have a debilitating impact” on U.S. security or the national economy. That’s because the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of cobalt, but mines none of it.
Now that is set to change. The first mine in the U.S. dedicated to producing cobalt will open in Idaho next year, reflecting the metal’s increasing importance in transportation, communication, and energy technologies. Cobalt is used in rechargeable batteries for wireless devices and hybrid vehicles, and in catalysts for refining gasoline. Half of the $440 million worth of cobalt consumed in the U.S. last year went into heat- and high-pressure-resistant “super-alloy” metals for aircraft engine compressors, combustion chambers, and turbines.
The U.S. has largely relied on imports of refined cobalt from China—the world’s leading producer—and from Norway, Russia, and Canada. (About one-fifth of the 10,000 tons of cobalt consumed in the U.S. in 2010 came from recycling scrap metal and spent catalysts.) China, besides its domestic supply, processes cobalt from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which supplied half of the 88,000 metric tons of cobalt mined in the world last year. (Zambia provided an additional 13 percent, with another 7 percent coming from Russia and China each.)
However, this geographic diversity masks the fact that much of the world’s supply—possibly one-third—is controlled by a single company, Switzerland-based Glencore and its subsidiaries. “We may be shifting our reliance on foreign oil into a reliance on foreign critical materials,” says Matthew Stepp, a clean-energy policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C.
U.S. mines haven’t produced cobalt in more than three decades. Even then, it was mined as a by-product of copper and nickel ore extraction, which is still how most cobalt is produced throughout the world today. But cobalt will be the primary resource mined at the Idaho Cobalt Project near Salmon, Idaho. The mine, which is being built by the Canadian mineral company Formation Metals, is expected to produce 1,500 tons of super-alloy grade cobalt each year for at least the next 10 years. That represents about 3 percent of today’s global supply.
Not far from the Idaho Cobalt Project is the inactive Blackbird Mine, which tells another tale of cobalt: the record of mining malpractice in the American West. The Blackbird site has 3.8 million tons of waste rock, a 10.5-acre open pit and two million tons of tailings that released contaminated soil and sediments into nearby creeks before it was shut down in the early 1980s.