US cobalt mine crucial to making electric vehicles opens in Idaho: NPR

Cobalt is an important component of lithium-ion batteries, like those in many electric vehicles.

Keith Srakocic/AP

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Keith Srakocic/AP

Cobalt is an important component of lithium-ion batteries, like those in many electric vehicles.

Keith Srakocic/AP

SALMON, Idaho — The first and only cobalt mine in the United States in decades opened Friday in Idaho amid growing demand for the unique metal, a key component in electric vehicle batteries and battery storage.

The opening of Australia-based Jervois Global’s Idaho facility near the site of a defunct cobalt open-pit mine is being hailed by state and federal officials pushing to accelerate the development of minerals that support national security. and national.

“We’re talking about building a world-class clean energy economy, and this mine, this project … is key to that vision,” Geri Richmond of the US Department of Energy told the assembled workers and dignitaries. at the remote mine site.

Not far from the famous Salmon River, the mine is the latest reminder of the environmental dilemma for the United States and the world as economies change. away from fossil fuels and towards greener energy. Electrifying transportation will require massive amounts of new mining.

Part of the mineral processing team at Idaho Cobalt Operations

Eric Whitney/NPR

It’s not your grandfather’s cobalt mine

The old mine, closed in 1982, was also the only cobalt mine in the US at the time. It polluted local trout streams, but Jervois Global CEO Bryce Crocker says environmental safeguards are in place for this generation’s mine, including $44 million set aside for cleanup, as required by federal law should it happen. something unexpected. The Jervois mine is also mostly underground and it will be capped once operations are finished, unlike the big old open pit.

“I think this is a really important development for the United States,” says Crocker. “This is geopolitically significant because the US has no domestic supply of cobalt.”

Most of the cobalt mined in the world today comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there is widespread child labor and other human rights issues. Most of its production goes to China, which also controls most of the world’s cobalt refining.

“Idaho’s is the only cobalt mine in the United States and will remain so,” says Crocker. “So we saw it as a strategically important asset for the country.”

The $100 million publicly traded company Jervois is launching, even at full production, will equate to little trouble in the global marketplace. Once fully operational, the Idaho mine is expected to meet only about 10% of total US demand — enough for several hundred thousand electric cars, the company says.

“It will be a while before we can say this is going to be a growth industry,” says Brad Martin, director of the RAND Homeland Security Supply Chain Institute. “To think that we are going to be able to move all of this back to the United States in a short time and be self-sufficient is not correct.”

Idaho Cobalt Operations workers watch a mine ground breaking ceremony on October 7

Eric Whitney/NPR

Still, Martin says the future is the electrification of global energy grids, with cobalt playing a key role. Companies will therefore compete to secure reliable sources, domestically and from allied countries, as how China will use its control over most of the DRC’s cobalt is uncertain.

Cobalt from the Idaho mine will be sent to a refinery that Jervois is refurbishing in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for processing. The company projects an initial run of seven years. That makes building a refinery in the US too expensive for now, but company officials are looking for new federal funds destined to boost national mining production that could help extend the life cycle of the mine.

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