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Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5084

Cobalt Mineral Exploration and Supply From 1995 Through 2013

By David R. Wilburn

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (703 KB)Abstract

The global mining industry has invested a large amount of capital in mineral exploration and development over the past 15 years in an effort to ensure that sufficient resources are available to meet future increases in demand for minerals. Exploration data have been used to identify specific sites where this investment has led to a significant contribution in global mineral supply of cobalt or where a significant increase in cobalt production capacity is anticipated in the next 5 years. This report provides an overview of the cobalt industry, factors affecting mineral supply, and circumstances surrounding the development, or lack thereof, of key mineral properties with the potential to affect mineral supply. Of the 48 sites with an effective production capacity of at least 1,000 metric tons per year of cobalt considered for this study, 3 producing sites underwent significant expansion during the study period, 10 exploration sites commenced production from 1995 through 2008, and 16 sites were expected to begin production by 2013 if planned development schedules are met.

Cobalt supply is influenced by economic, environmental, political, and technological factors affecting exploration for and production of copper, nickel, and other metals as well as factors affecting the cobalt industry. Cobalt-rich nickel laterite deposits were discovered and developed in Australia and the South Pacific and improvements in laterite processing technology took place during the 1990s and early in the first decade of the 21st century when mining of copper-cobalt deposits in Congo (Kinshasa) was restricted because of regional conflict and lack of investment in that country’s mining sector. There was also increased exploration for and greater importance placed on cobalt as a byproduct of nickel mining in Australia and Canada. The emergence of China as a major refined cobalt producer and consumer since 2007 has changed the pattern of demand for cobalt, particularly from Africa and Australasia. Chinese companies are increasingly becoming involved in copper and cobalt exploration and mining in Congo (Kinshasa) and Zambia as well as nickel, copper, and other mining in Australia and the South Pacific. Between 2009 and 2013, mines with a cumulative capacity of more than 100,000 metric tons per year of cobalt were proposed to come into production if all sites came into production as scheduled. This additional capacity corresponds to 175 percent of the 2008 global refinery production level. About 45 percent of this cobalt would be from primary nickel deposits, about 32 percent from primary copper deposits, and about 21 percent from primary cobalt deposits. By 2013, about 40 percent of new capacity was expected to come from the African Copperbelt; 38 percent, from Australia and the South Pacific countries of Philippines, Indonesia, New Caledonia, and Papua New Guinea; 11 percent, from other African countries; 5 percent, from North America; and 6 percent, from other areas.

First posted March 9, 2012

For additional information contact:
David R. Wilburn
U.S. Geological Survey
Box 25046
Denver Federal Center
Mail Stop 750
Denver, CO 80225–0046
Telephone: (303) 236–5213

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Suggested citation:

Wilburn, D.R., 2011, Cobalt mineral exploration and supply from 1995 through 2013: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5084, 16 p.




Selected Site Assessments


North America

Australia and the Pacific

Other Areas

Factors Affecting Cobalt Supply

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

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