For the last four decades, cobalt mining has been almost non-existent in the US. That's changing now with what the BBC labels a rush for the precious metal recently named as critical to the US economy. With increases in price and demand for the silver-blue mineral—used in everything from the lithium-ion batteries to jet engines to drones—mining firms that have "never actually gone looking for cobalt" are doing so, says Trent Mell, CEO of Canada-based First Cobalt. His is one of several firms planning to dig for cobalt in the US, including in Idaho and Missouri, over the next several years. Along with the risks—there's availability and price volatility to consider, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to establish a mine—comes the potential for big rewards.
Consumption of cobalt—selling for $32 a pound, up from $20 in early 2011—is on pace to rise 8% to 10% a year, per the BBC. Indeed, some analysts expect to see shortages as soon as 2022. American-mined cobalt could ease the burden and might even fetch a premium price as the US looks to ease its reliance on imports and more companies begin to request ethical sources of the metal. ABC Australia reports that more than 60% of the world's supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Amnesty International claims child slaves toil in mines. Some, however, see the rush as coming too late. Tiberius Group CEO Christoph Eibl tells Bloomberg that "the craziness that you see in cobalt will in many ways actually be corrected." For example, future batteries may use less lithium, he says. "There’s so much uncertainty about how future technologies will be applied." (Read more mining stories.)