Current and Projected Uses
The fastest growing use of cobalt is in the production of rechargeable batteries. Virtually all mainstream battery chemistries require significant amounts of cobalt. Both hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and all electric vehicles (EVs) rely on electrical storage capacity to function. In addition to HEVs and EVs, electronics such as computers, cell phones, portable tools, and power supply backups also rely on NiMH or Li-Ion technology for their rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable battery demand in the U.S. is growing and has already overtaken other cobalt applications in terms of percentage of use.
Cobalt is also the essential element needed in almost every form of clean energy production technology being developed today. Gas to liquid (GTL), coal to liquid (CTL), clean coal, oil desulfurization, photo-voltaic cells (or solar panels), wind turbines, gas turbines, and fuel cell technologies all require cobalt. As a catalyst, cobalt is essential for cleaning traditional carbon-based energy sources as well as reducing dependence on foreign sources of carbon-based energy sources through leveraging domestic sources available in coal, gas-shales, and oil-shales. Cobalt catalysts are responsible for cleaning our current automobile fuel, through removal of sulfur, thereby keeping our air cleaner.
Super-alloy is a general term for alloy metals that are used in elevated temperature and/or elevated pressure environments and are used extensively in the aerospace sector. The U.S. national defense, as well as our robust civil air transportation backbone, relies on cobalt to provide reliable, safe, and efficient jet propulsion. Needed to construct evermore light and powerful jet engines operating at higher and higher temperatures, cobalt is the essential element used in turbine blades to retain their structural integrity while being subjected to torturous corrosion, temperatures and pressures. Typically, a high by-pass, turbofan jet engine of the 40,000 lb. thrust class requires 110 to 132 pounds of cobalt in each finished engine. Major users of high-purity cobalt include General Electric, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce, and other aerospace companies. Today, super-alloys account for almost half the U.S. annual consumption of cobalt.
Cobalt is not a competitor or replacement for other strategic minerals like REEs. On the contrary, it is the symbiotic relationship that cobalt and other minerals share that makes so many technologies effective. A great example of this relationship is that of cobalt and certain REEs in the production of permanent magnets. Permanent magnets are needed to make wind turbines and other land based clean energy production technologies. Cobalt’s extremely high Curie temperature allows these permanent magnets to maintain their magnetic properties at high temperatures. While some permanent magnets contain cobalt as a primary constituent, other magnets often named for their REE primary constituents also rely on cobalt in their production. While some permanent magnets are finished in the U.S. for end-use, they are largely manufactured overseas in Asian markets.
Research being conducted at MIT shows an exciting projected use of cobalt in synthesizing photosynthesis to produce carbon-free energy by separating hydrogen and oxygen for use in fuel cells. This process, which uses dissolved cobalt and phosphate to split the water molecule, can be coupled with solar and wind power generation technologies to provide power storage during periods of darkness or no wind thereby making clean, carbon-free energy available 24 hours a day.
Supply & Demand
With no current domestic primary production (i.e., mining and refining) of cobalt in the U.S. and stockpiled supplies available in the strategic reserve dwindling, the U.S. is completely dependent on foreign supplies; although, a very small fraction of production does occur as a by-product of other metal production and recycling. As of December, 2009, the strategic reserve contained only 293 tonnes of cobalt. With the U.S annual demand for cobalt accounting for nearly 20% of the world’s annual supply of approximately 60,000 tonnes, the remaining strategic reserve is insignificant.
Most cobalt production comes as a by-product of other metal production such as nickel and copper. Many of the largest producers of cobalt as a by-product are located in countries that are either unstable or unfriendly to the U.S. Two of the largest cobalt by-product producers are the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. With on-going political and civil strife in the regions, the mines are sometimes forced to shut down and, once shuttered, these operations can take years to re-open. China has rapidly become the world’s largest producer of refined cobalt and is growing into the world’s largest consumer. China has the potential to become the virtual OPEC of cobalt refining, potentially controlling major producers both domestically in China as well as Africa. China’s latest move to potentially limit REE exports to Japan is further evidence of this monopoly.
According to the Cobalt Development Institute (CDI), the demand for portable electronic device rechargeable batteries has doubled over the past several years. Increasing numbers of HEVs and EVs drives the demand for rechargeable batteries ever higher. The deployment of more and more clean energy production technologies further swell demand. In fact, the growing demand for cobalt in battery and catalyst use has surpassed super-alloys as the primary demand for cobalt. Furthermore, the demand in the battery and catalyst sectors has shifted from the U.S. and Europe to Asia and is evidenced by the battery and catalyst production in Asian countries. This shift, however, may reverse as large-scale battery production operations in the U.S. take hold, such as those starting up in Michigan and Tennessee.
The rae purity of cobalt needed in super-alloys and many high-tech applications, is controlled by a single foreign company. With U.S. demand for high-purity cobalt at 60% of the world’s supply and no currently operating domestic sources or refineries, we are completely dependent on other countries for our supply of high-purity cobalt. Thpid growth of the Chinese industrial and consumer base, along with increasing competition for cobalt in the emerging clean energy sector, further strains the U.S. already tenuous position of foreign dependency. Moreover, it is estimated that approximately 80% of the high-purity cobalt market, that is there is, however, at least one primary source of high-purity cobalt in the U.S. being developed in Idaho. The Idaho Cobalt Project includes development of an underground mine and refinery. Cobalt was formerly mined in this area from the early 1900’s until the 1970’s. When in production, the Idaho Cobalt Project mine and refinery will be the only U.S. domestic, primary source of high purity cobalt.
The importance of re-energizing effective policies regarding the exploration, development, and production of strategic minerals in support of clean energy technology development is underscored by the U.S.’ precarious position of dependency. The Western Governors Association (WGA) recently adopted policy resolution 10-16, titled "National Minerals Policy." This policy resolution states, "WGA urges the federal government to fund an effort by the U.S. Geological Survey and state geological surveys to identify potential, domestic REE deposits and other critical minerals for alternative energy technologies." As you now know, the U.S. demand for strategic minerals and REEs for clean energy technologies, as well as other uses, vastly outpaces the limited or non-existent production in the United States today.
The challenge of permitting a new mine in the U.S. must be weighed by companies exploring or trying to develop strategic mineral deposits domestically. Additionally, uncertainties regarding policies towards mining can further hamper efforts to develop domestic sources. A vital component of effective energy policy must include the development of the essential minerals required to effect U.S. energy security.
Cobalt is essential for the future of the U.S.’ national defense and energy security. While demand for cobalt increases globally, the supply continues to be controlled by an exclusive group of countries or foreign companies that may not be friendly to the U.S. or are politically unstable. The U.S.’ cobalt dependency can only be remedied through effective application of policy that makes the domestic production of cobalt, via environmentally sustainable mining and refining, a priority.