Tonnes of cobalt could be mined in Idaho but processing facilities still lacking — study

Iron Creek project area. (Image by Electra Battery Materials).

A recent study by researchers at ​​the Colorado School of Mines evaluated the potential for cobalt extraction from the Idaho Cobalt Belt (ICB) of east-central Idaho and found that its Iron Creek deposit, which is being explored by Canadian miner Electra Battery Materials, could produce at least 6,000 tonnes of cobalt, but possibly much more.

According to the paper, which was published in the journal Geology, the cobalt at Iron Creek is mainly found in cobaltiferous pyrite. It is bound up in the crystal lattice where it is substituted for iron, which has the same elemental charge as cobalt. Meanwhile, other deposits in the ICB host cobalt in two other minerals—cobaltiferous arsenopyrite and cobaltite.

“The cobalt is sitting in the pyrite itself, which means that in order to get it out, you essentially have to wreck the pyrite structure,” Elizabeth Holley, lead author of the article, said in a media statement.

According to Holley and her colleagues, despite renewed interest in domestic mining, the US currently lacks the facilities needed to process the ore from the ICB into usable cobalt.

In addition to the battery metal, the researchers also found inclusions within the pyrite of other critical minerals like tellurium, silver, and bismuth, but likely not enough to be economically viable for extraction. Chalcopyrite in the rocks is also a potential source of copper.

Given these results, the group concluded that the ore from Idaho should be divided and processed for copper and cobalt separately. Chalcopyrite can be processed in existing copper smelting facilities within the country, and minerals with cobalt would ideally be processed in an autoclave—either an existing facility in Canada or a new one to be built in the US.

The study also documents existing global cobalt mining and processing facilities and the connections between them—highlighting that roughly 70% of the global cobalt supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then processed in China.

The authors note that despite the fact that the demand for cobalt is expected to increase more than 500% by 2050 from current levels, battery technologies that use other ingredients have been gaining attention and popularity, such as lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, also called LFPs.

“Technology is evolving, and one of the new trendy research areas focuses on reducing the amount of cobalt in batteries. Will we still need the projected amounts of cobalt in the future? We don’t know,” Holley said.