The Rise in Demand for Cobalt
Cobalt, a versatile and valuable metal, has seen a significant increase in demand in recent years. With its wide range of applications in various industries, including aerospace, electronics, and renewable energy, the need for cobalt has soared. However, despite this surge in demand, America’s only cobalt mine, located in the state of Idaho, has closed its doors. This unexpected turn of events raises questions about the factors that led to the closure and the implications it may have on the country’s cobalt supply.
The History of America’s Cobalt Mine
The cobalt mine in Idaho played a crucial role in the United States’ cobalt production. It was one of the few sources of domestically mined cobalt, reducing the country’s reliance on imports. The mine had been operational for several decades, providing a steady supply of cobalt to meet the nation’s needs. However, a combination of factors ultimately led to its closure.
Challenges Faced by the Cobalt Mine
One of the primary challenges faced by the cobalt mine was the declining ore grades. Over time, the quality of the cobalt ore extracted from the mine began to decrease, making it less economically viable to continue operations. This decline in ore grades meant that more extensive mining efforts were required to extract the same amount of cobalt, resulting in increased costs and reduced profitability.
Furthermore, environmental concerns played a significant role in the mine’s closure. As awareness of the environmental impact of mining activities grew, stricter regulations were imposed to protect the surrounding ecosystems. Compliance with these regulations required substantial investments in infrastructure and technology upgrades, further straining the mine’s financial viability.
Competition from Overseas Suppliers
Another factor that contributed to the closure of America’s cobalt mine was the competition from overseas suppliers. Cobalt reserves in other countries, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), offered more abundant and cost-effective sources of cobalt. These overseas suppliers were able to meet the growing global demand for cobalt at a lower price, making it difficult for the American mine to remain competitive.
Additionally, the geopolitical landscape and trade policies also played a role. The United States’ reliance on imported cobalt from politically unstable regions, such as the DRC, raised concerns about supply chain security. However, the economic advantages of sourcing cobalt from overseas suppliers outweighed these concerns, further impacting the viability of the American mine.
Cobalt was once a byproduct of copper and nickel mining that nobody cared about. Today, it’s a superstar. What changed?
Cobalt is an essential material in the batteries of our phones and electric cars, as it stabilizes them and prolongs their life. As our dependence on electronic devices and electric vehicles grew, especially in countries like the US and China, cobalt became a highly sought-after resource. However, concerns were raised about the mining practices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is a major source of cobalt. The importance of cobalt was so great that Apple even purchased its cobalt mine in the DRC to secure a reliable supply. Despite its significance, cobalt can be challenging to locate.
Currently, the majority of cobalt used by the United States and its allies comes from mines controlled or owned by China or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This presents a potential problem because batteries are a vital component of the strategy to replace oil as the primary energy source, and any disruption to that energy supply could jeopardize the ability of the economy to function. Additionally, the United States’ tense relations with China and the DRC could cause significant problems if the West’s supply of cobalt were threatened. The Biden Administration has even classified a lack of cobalt mines as a national security threat. The Cobalt Supply Problem
The obvious solution? The US and its allies need to open cobalt mines of their own. But that’s easier said than done. Big deposits of cobalt are relatively rare. The Salmon River mountains have one of the only known major deposits in the country. And that is why a bunch of officials showed up to watch the ribbon get cut on a little Idaho mine.
“Cobalt is critical to national security,” asserts Bryce Crocker, CEO of Jervois Global, the Australian company that opened the Idaho mine. “Certainly governors don’t turn out for gold mine openings, nor do ambassadors, nor do U.S. government agencies. But for critical mineral projects like cobalt? When does the United States have no other supply? They come out.”