Can the Electric Car Industry Bring This Ghost Town Back to Life?

Modern-day Cobalt, Ontario, has little remaining industrial base compared to 100 years ago when a silver rush transformed the town. P199/Wikimedia Commons

Like so many mining towns throughout North America, Cobalt, Ontario has seen better days. The silver rush that transformed the modest community, located 300 miles north of Toronto, into a vibrant boomtown during the early 1900s has long since died away.

Today, the sleepy hamlet — some call it a ghost town — still bears scars from those heady, get-rich-quick days. The borough, built atop a honeycomb of abandoned mining tunnels, is not only littered with waste rock and capped mine shafts but also plagued by poverty.

But its fortunes could soon reverse. Cobalt, population 1,100, is poised to flourish once more due to its rich stores of the metal cobalt. Ironically, the town known for its silver was actually named for this shiny, bluish-gray ore. At the time it was mostly ignored. But not anymore.

It turns out cobalt is a key component of batteries that power cellphones, laptops and, increasingly, electric cars. Call it the new gold, a mineral prize that electric car makers like Tesla and tech companies are more than eager to get their hands on, particularly from conflict-free mining regions. Cobalt, Ontario, fits the bill.

Tesla Model S
Cobalt is a key component of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, smart phones and electric cars, like this Tesla Model S. David van der Mark/Wikimedia Commons

Multi-purpose metal

Blue pigments made from cobalt (called cobalt blue) have been used for centuries to dye glass, glazes and ceramics, but the element wasn’t formally recognized as a metal until 1730. Its name derives from the German word kobold, meaning goblin or evil spirit, which is what 16th century miners dubbed the mineral because of the poisonous arsenic trioxide it gave off during smelting.

Today, this versatile metal is used in magnets, in alloys to make jet turbines, and its radioactive form (cobalt-60) as a gamma ray source in cancer treatment. It also has some delightfully strange properties: Cobalt chloride, for instance, morphs from sky blue to pink as air moisture rises, making it ideal for use in weather instruments that detect humidity.

But nowhere is demand for cobalt greater right now than from the renewable energy and tech sectors for use in lithium-ion batteries.

cobalt blue bottles
Cobalt has long been used to dye ceramics and glass, like this collection of brilliantly colored cobalt blue glass bottles. Shannon Prickett/flickr

Supply-and-demand conundrum

According to The Guardian, the worldwide lithium-ion battery market will rise to $75 billion by 2024 from $30 billion in 2015, based on estimates by Transparency Market Research. A major driver behind this growth is the expected boom in electric vehicle (EV) sales. Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that plug-in cars will account for one-third of the global automobile fleet — 530 million vehicles — by 2040.

That’s good news for the planet. But the fossil-fuel-free road ahead isn’t without potential potholes. One is a possible cobalt shortage as demand balloons for battery-driven EVs.

Another increasing concern is where and how cobalt is mined. Last year, more than half of the world’s 123,000-ton supply came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has significant reserves of the coveted mineral. Unfortunately, this impoverished and violence-prone African nation is also known for its use of child labor, horrendous working conditions and disregard for environmentally sound mining practices. Call it the clean-car industry’s dirty, little secret.

All this has put Tesla and other EV makers (as well as tech companies like Apple) in dire need of new humane, conflict-free cobalt supplies that can help them maintain their squeaky-green image and ensure reliable supply chains.

Check out this Economist video for a closer look at the enormous momentum behind EV growth and the industry’s current overreliance on “dirty” cobalt.

Cobalt 2.0

Enter Cobalt, Ontario. This once-bustling community has started bustling again, thanks to its potential as a guilt-free mining alternative.

Vancouver-based First Cobalt Corp. has begun buying up old mines and other potential hot spots around the area. In October, the company even drove a busload of international investors and hedge-fund managers up to the hinterlands to ignite interest in what it believes will be a bright cobalt future. Mine production is still a ways off because cobalt deposited in the Precambrian rock is not well documented. But the company’s stock price already has soared 90 percent this year.

Likewise, Cobalt 27 Capital Corp., another interested mining company based in British Columbia, has seen its stock jump nearly 600 percent.

Town celebration in Cobalt, Ontario
A town celebration during Cobalt’s heyday as a silver mining mecca in the early 1900s. pkdon50/Wikimedia Commons

For the long-suffering residents of Cobalt this influx of prospectors represents a potential economic breath of fresh air, as long as the expected cobalt bonanza pans out.

As Mayor Tina Sartoretto told CBC News, “We’ll wait and see.” But if deposits are significant “it bodes well for Cobalt and the area,” she adds.