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DRC cobalt deposits not ‘that old’

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s cobalt comes from Congo. Photo shows artisanal miners holding up handfuls of cobalt ore (left) and copper ore (right) from industrial mine sites near Lake Malo, Kapata, on the outskirts of Kolwezi, in the DRC. (Image courtesy of Amnesty International and Afrewatch)

A study by the University of Alberta revealed that cobalt deposits in the Democratic Republic of Congo are 150 million years younger than previously thought.

Using a new rhenium-osmium dating system to examine the ‘blue gold’ deposits in the African country, researchers Nicolas Saintilan and Robert Creaser demonstrated that cobalt and copper mineralization occurred during a period of mountain building and deformation between 610 and 470 million years ago. This means that the deposits formed 100 to 150 million years more recently than previously thought.

“Using this new knowledge of the timing of events that formed cobalt deposits, we can target regions for exploring known cobalt deposits and discovering new ones,” Creaser said in a media statement.

Given the surge in electric vehicle demand, cobalt has become a sought-after mineral as it improves battery performance by allowing the system to store energy without overheating. The blue element is also key in electronics’ lithium-ion batteries.

With reserves in the order of 3.5 million tonnes, the DRC hosts most of the world’s cobalt and is responsible for 50% of the global supply. Miners, however, are somehow weary about operating in the country given its tinted track record when it comes to the protection of human and labour rights, as well as its frequent episodes of social unrest.

“The conundrum is that the western world needs cobalt, and the conditions in some places we currently get it from can be exploitative,” Creaser said. “The biggest value of this research is opening the possibility of finding more prospective areas worldwide for sources of cobalt. This background information helps exploration geologists develop ideas of where and where not to look.”

The researchers published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.