Formation says it is taking measures to protect the environment surrounding its mine. Its wastewater will be treated and the mine’s tailings will be covered to prevent rainwater from washing heavy metals into the soil and streams. The company says it will measure cobalt levels in the surface water and treat any contamination of it. And when the mine is reclaimed, half of the tailings will go back into the pit and be neutralized, Formation says. The company won the support of the Idaho Conservation League for its mine’s design, its fail-safes, and its donations—more than $150,000 in 2010—to projects to improve and protect the Salmon River watershed.
Other cobalt mining operations are in consideration from Michigan to Minnesota to Baja California. Baja Mining Corporation, for example, secured funding last November for its Boleo project in Baja, where it expects to produce about 1,700 tons of cobalt each year. Thirty percent of that mine is owned by a Korean consortium; South Korea is one of the leading exporters of rechargeable batteries to the U.S.
New mining projects already are underway in Canada and Western Australia, and there are applications to mine under the ocean floor, where another billion tons of cobalt might exist. With an estimated 15 million tons of cobalt resources identified in the world, supply is not a concern, and prices are expected to remain relatively low for now. “In the next few years, global increases in supply from existing producers and new projects are forecast to outpace increases in consumption,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
But such projections could change as the demand for cobalt increases, especially in lithium-ion batteries, which require 10 times as much cobalt as lithium. And such projections aren’t always applicable because the different grades of refined cobalt vary in their availability. The high-purity cobalt used in super-alloys and prosthetics, for example, is harder to obtain, according to Robert Baylis, manager of industrial minerals at the consulting firm Roskill. The refined cobalt from China often doesn’t meet the quality standards needed for these applications, which is one reason Formation has the financial incentive to produce high-purity cobalt for domestic purposes.