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Climate change and energy

High-Tech Demand Sparks Return of Cobalt Mines

Cobalt hasn’t been mined in the U.S. in 30 years, but the blue metal’s crucial role in energy and communications technologies is changing that.
August 30, 2011

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.

Start digging: Construction began this year at the Idaho Cobalt Project in Salmon, Idaho—where cobalt will be mined in the U.S. for the first time in three decades.

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.

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.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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