How the Idaho cobalt belt could be North America’s secret to growing EV production

Trent Mell outside the Iron Creek cobalt deposit in Idaho. (Image courtesy of First Cobalt.)

As geopolitical worries and supply chain issues continue to affect all industries, North America is quickly turning to alternative sources of battery materials as the west looks to shore up its own supply chains, create jobs, and strengthen domestic energy production.

Lithium-ion battery chemistries in North America are primarily comprised of nickel, manganese, and cobalt (NMC). Cobalt essentially provides stability to batteries making the commodity an important component for EV production. As of now, NMC batteries are a proven design for the North American market, providing energy rich, long-lasting cars that fit the needs of today’s consumers.

As demand for EV’s soar, automakers are looking at the state of Idaho as a potential source of cobalt. Early indications are that Idaho offers multiple encouraging deposits with opportunities to supply the North American EV supply chain. Responsible mining in Idaho, shortening international supply chains, and onshoring domestic critical metals will help North America become a focal point for the EV revolution.

The new cobalt frontier

The significance of battery components like nickel and cobalt have caused prices for these essential elements to rise as electric car sales continue to grow.

Fortunately, Idaho has a reliable supply of cobalt for the U.S. Despite being a little-known fact, Idaho is home to America’s “cobalt belt,” which spans a mineralized system that stretches for about 50 miles and includes a past-producing mine, two mining projects, and several known cobalt prospects.

Idaho has taken a different approach to mining than many other jurisdictions, adopting a more favorable perspective to both encourage and support mining as a boom to the state’s economy and a solution to America’s reliance of foreign-sourced critical minerals. Drilling reports out of Idaho show great promise as the state seeks to offer a path to energy independence for the west.

The current cobalt discoveries in Idaho are an excellent illustration of the opportunity the U.S. has in front of it. It’s estimated low-impact underground mining techniques in the Idaho Cobalt Belt may meet 30% of the cobalt demand in the U.S. over a 30-year timeframe. This would secure a critical battery material and reduce reliance on international supply chains of critical minerals for OEMs.

To ensure automakers access reliable critical minerals for their EVs, it is imperative regulatory delays and uncertainty on responsible producers are eased. Shortening the regulatory approval process for responsible producers will help ensure companies can bring these raw materials to market in a manner that respects the environment, is cost effective, and benefits local stakeholders.

Bringing our supply chains home

The adoption of electric vehicles is accelerating the need for certain metals that are required for batteries. With the increase in EV production, Idaho is quickly becoming a point of interest for its rich cobalt laden land. As EV demand increases, automakers are searching for a steady stream of critical minerals to help boost EV sales and power the next generation of vehicles. Without feed and domestic processing that is done onshore in North America, the sector will suffer and fall victim to the same supply chain problems plaguing dozens of industries.

Currently, most automakers rely on feed from the Democratic Republic of Congo processed in China for their battery production plans. This will be problematic for the industry to realize its objectives to become carbon neutral by 2035 and beyond, leaving automakers behind the production curve as supply snarls continue to limit efficiency and security of supply.

By making investments in environmentally friendly raw material procurement, western countries will be able to compete with established supply chains from the east. Localized supply chains are more dependable and leave less of an environmental imprint, which is fundamental to the idea of zero emission automobiles.

Automakers and Western governments can respond to crises more rapidly, become more adaptable in their reaction, and be less affected by trade wars and other geopolitical events by bringing vital mineral supplies closer to home. This will support a strong local workforce while also guaranteeing that the strictest sustainable standards are upheld.

Automakers stand to gain from investments in the creation of an integrated supply chain in the west, providing jobs, technological advancements, and economic benefits to western countries and EV producers.

Localized battery mineral sourcing will aid in restoring jobs as automakers transition to an electric fleet and present a chance to support a developing sector with secure employment prospects. With new choices for ecologically secure and safe battery manufacture, these new jobs will support Western workforces.

Trent Mell is the CEO of Electra Battery Materials.  Headquartered in Toronto, Electra is a processor of battery materials focused on onshoring the EV supply chain.