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In Idaho, America's first, and only, cobalt mine in decades is opening

Cobalt is an important component of lithium ion batteries, like those in many electric vehicles
Keith Srakocic
/
AP
Cobalt is an important component of lithium ion batteries, like those in many electric vehicles

SALMON, Idaho — The first — and only — cobalt mine in America in decades opened Friday in Idaho amid rising 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 fast track development of minerals that support domestic and national security.

"We're talking about building a world class clean energy economy, and this mine, this project ... is key to that vision," the U.S. Department of Energy's Geri Richmond told workers and dignitaries gathered at the remote mine site.

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

Part of the mineral processing equipment at Idaho Cobalt Operations
Eric Whitney / NPR
/
NPR
Part of the mineral processing equipment at Idaho Cobalt Operations.

Not your grandfather's cobalt mine

The old mine, shuttered in 1982, was also the only cobalt mine in the U.S. in its 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 something unexpected happen. The Jervois mine is also mostly underground and will be capped once operations end, unlike the old, large open pit.

"I think this is a really important development for the U.S.," Crocker says. "This is geopolitically significant because the U.S. has no cobalt supply domestically."

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

"Idaho's is the only cobalt mine in the United States and it's going to remain so," Crocker says. "So we viewed it as a strategically important asset for the country."

The $100 million enterprise that publicly traded Jervois is launching will, even at full production, amount to a small blip in the global market. Once fully operational, the Idaho mine is expected to meet only about 10% of overall U.S. demand. Enough for several hundred thousand electric cars, the company says.

"It will be a while before we can actually say that this is going to be a growth industry," says Brad Martin, director of the RAND National Security Supply Chain Institute. "To think that we're going to be able to move all this back into the United States in short order and be self sufficient is not right."

Workers at Idaho Cobalt Operations watch a ceremony opening the mine Oct. 7
Eric Whitney / NPR
/
NPR
Workers at Idaho Cobalt Operations watch a ceremony opening the mine on Oct. 7.

Still, Martin says the future is electrification of global energy grids, and cobalt plays a key role. So companies will be jockeying to secure reliable sources of it, domestically and from allied countries, as how China will use its control over most DRC cobalt is uncertain.

The cobalt from the Idaho mine will be shipped to a refinery Jervois is refurbishing in São Paulo, Brazil, to be processed. The company projects an initial seven-year run. That makes building a U.S. refinery too costly for now, but company officials are eying new federal funds aimed at boosting domestic mineral production that might help extend the mine's life cycle.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
Eric Whitney