Surging demand for cobalt spurs hunt for mineral in Australia’s mine waste


When the Queensland state authorities despatched Anita Parbhakar-Fox to the distant city of Mt Isa within the Australian outback to hunt for cobalt in copper mine waste, the geology professor had excessive expectations.

But when she examined the samples again at her lab on the University of Queensland she was shocked. One studying confirmed 7,000 components of cobalt per million — greater than 200 occasions cobalt’s common presence within the earth’s crust.

“I nearly fell off my chair when I got that piece of data,” she mentioned, explaining that 300 ppm is sufficient to get miners excited. “If you’ve got 7,000 ppm, that’s pretty juicy. It was a eureka moment.”

Australia’s state and federal governments are sending groups of geologists into the outback to scour mine waste for cobalt, because the nation seeks to diversify from fossil fuels to turn out to be an exporter of unpolluted vitality minerals, reminiscent of cobalt, nickel and lithium.

Parbhakar-Fox’s discovery signifies how quite a few waste pits and tailings dams within the area could comprise giant portions of cobalt conveniently positioned close to mining and transport infrastructure. The nation produces solely 4 per cent of the world’s cobalt regardless of having practically 20 per cent of its estimated deposits, in accordance with authorities figures.

“It’s a game changer for Australia,” mentioned Joe Kaderavek, chief govt of Cobalt Blue, an Australian cobalt miner and processor primarily based in Broken Hill in south-east Australia, that’s analyzing the potential to extract cobalt from mine waste.

“The scale of the cobalt opportunity in these tailing dams and dumps would mean that we would not be making 3,000 or 4,000 tonnes of cobalt [a year], but four or five times that, if we were to bring that to the market,” Kaderavek mentioned.

He estimated that there could also be as a lot as 300,000 tonnes of cobalt in forgotten mine waste left by corporations over the previous century when metals for batteries weren’t in excessive demand.

Cobalt is a key part in lithium-ion batteries utilized in electrical autos and smartphones, and is usually discovered alongside copper and nickel deposits.

While batteries might be made with out cobalt, its inclusion considerably will increase effectivity. Three quarters of EV batteries made final yr contained the metallic, in accordance with the Cobalt Institute, a UK-based commerce affiliation.

But the sources of cobalt are problematic. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Africa produces greater than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt in accordance with Wood Mackenzie, and the business there has come underneath sustained criticism for human rights abuses.

A landmark 2016 report by Amnesty International discovered baby labour was widespread in small artisanal mines, the place employees had been uncovered to harmful situations for little pay.

Wood Mackenzie tasks general cobalt demand will double by 2050, as battery use will increase exponentially and 0 emission EVs change carbon-emitting combustion engines.

Preparing sacks of cobalt powder for export at a mine in the Congo
Preparing sacks of cobalt powder for export at a mine within the Congo, which produces two-thirds of the world’s cobalt however the place the sector has been criticised for human rights abuses © Lucien Kahozi/Bloomberg

“I think [cobalt] has still got a place in the battery system for better performing batteries. And if you could mine it where it is reasonably cost competitive and rely on a reliable stream that is ex-DRC, then you will definitely have buyers,” mentioned Ross Gregory of advisory group New Electric Partners.

Allison Britt, director of mineral assets recommendation and promotion at Geoscience Australia, a federal authorities company that’s mapping cobalt deposits in mine waste throughout Australia, mentioned the nation had “enormous potential to supply more of the world’s cobalt”.

“If we did so, it would be produced under our strong environmental, social and governance regime, which would reduce reliance on the cobalt mines from the Congo,” she mentioned.

Analysts mentioned one other motivation to construct new cobalt provide chains is to interrupt China’s dominance of cobalt processing. Last yr China accounted for 72 per cent of cobalt refining in accordance with the Cobalt Institute. Australian miners have sometimes balked at processing their minerals onshore, however that’s altering.

US urge for food for Australian cobalt was proved earlier this yr when General Motors signed a long-term contract with Glencore, Australia’s greatest cobalt producer, for cobalt mined and processed in Western Australia.

The carmaker will use the cobalt to fabricate batteries at a brand new plant in Ohio by a three way partnership with LG. GM mentioned the deal supplied “responsible sourcing and supply chain management”.

While Australia has potential as a cobalt exporter, consultants mentioned it was unclear whether or not buyers would danger placing up long-term capital when battery expertise is creating so rapidly.

“It typically takes about eight to 15 years to bring a greenfield mine to production,” mentioned Ying Lu, a London-based battery metals analyst with Wood Mackenzie.

“If we start to invest and construct now, then the earliest material we can get is for the early 2030s. And in that time we will probably face more uncertainty on the demand side.”

Though promising, the waste pits at Mt Isa lie undeveloped. With Indonesia specifically quick creating its cobalt business, Lu mentioned Australia may miss the chance.

But Parbhakar-Fox mentioned miners had been already asking about her analysis, which the Queensland authorities is predicted to make public to encourage funding.

“We can prove the cobalt is there. But how to put the steps in place to enable those explorers to [invest] is the next challenge,” she mentioned.