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Friday, 2 September 2011

High-Tech Demand Sparks Return of Cobalt Mines

Technology Review
Sept 2, 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.

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.
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