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It may not get much glory, but the lithium-ion battery literally powers our daily lives: It’s running the phone or laptop you’re reading on right now (and the electric car you hopefully aren’t driving right now).

To make lithium batteries you need cobalt, and there are practical and moral concerns about the supply of the rare metal. Prices have spiked by 80% this year, sparking a new era of prospecting.

What is cobalt and where does it come from?

It’s a chemical element produced in supernovas and found in the Earth’s crust. Usually it’s mined as a byproduct of nickel and copper; when smelted, it’s a hard, shiny blue-silver metal.

Sixty percent the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where political instability and violence has created a serious moral dilemma for companies such as Tesla and Apple. The United Nations reportedly found scores of mass graves in the country this year, which it links to government forces.

Some companies have pulled out of mining in the DRC to focus on mines in other countries, especially Canada. However, the DRC’s massive deposits mean it will be crucial to fulfilling the growing demand for batteries and other components in the years to come.

LANGUAGE LESSON

The word is derived from the German kobold,**meaning “goblin,” so called because the ore only had tiny quantities of desirable metals and gave off poisonous fumes when smelted.**

BY THE DIGITS

0.0029%: Amount of the Earth’s crust comprised by cobalt

4.8 kg: Amount of cobalt in a 2017 Tesla battery

49%: Percent of cobalt demand driven by batteries and electric cars

60%: Projected share of cobalt demand for batteries by 2020

93,000: Metric tons extracted in 2016

6%: Percent of cobalt mining revenue that makes it into the national coffers of the Democratic Republic of Congo, because of widespread corruption

BRIEF HISTORY

The cobalt industry

16th century: The first cobalt mines are located in Norway, Sweden, Saxony, and Hungary.

1735: Swedish chemist Georg Brandt proves cobalt is an element.

1903: Silver is discovered in Ontario, Canada, in a mine that also has a cobalt deposit. A cobalt-silver rush ensues, and the area is incorporated in 1906 as Cobalt, Ontario.

1914: The world’s biggest deposits are discovered in the Katanga Province in the Congo

2017: As of May, more than a dozen mining companies have staked new claims in Ontario. Prospectors are also moving into locations in Scandinavia and Russia.

INDUSTRY HAZARDS

Driving demand

In September, Volkswagen put out a tender for a massive 10-year supply of cobalt—an estimated 24-36 million kg per year, worth $1.6–$2.4 billion at current prices. That’s one of the largest procurement projects in automotive history.

Bullish investors recently pushed Tesla and Apple stock to record highs, but a steady supply of cobalt will be crucial to making their plans a reality. Tesla wants to make 500,000 electric cars in 2018, but also says it wants to source the cobalt from North America, which won’t be easy.

Singing the blues

In the early 1980s, a Bronze-age ingot of blue glass was found on the Uluburun shipwreck off the Turkish coast. For millennia, cobalt blue pigment, formed by mixing cobalt compounds with alumina, has been used as a dye and to color glass and ceramics. The oldest known cobalt-colored glass dates from Egypt’s 18th dynasty (1550-1292 BC) but it’s also been found in Persian jewelry from the third millennium BC, in the ruins of Pompeii, and in China dating as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).

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