Cobalt is a silvery gray metal that has diverse uses based on certain key properties, including ferromagnetism, hardness and wear-resistance when alloyed with other metals, low thermal and electrical conductivity, high melting point, multiple valences, and production of intense blue colors when combined with silica. Cobalt is used mostly in cathodes in rechargeable batteries and in superalloys for turbine engines in jet aircraft. Annual global cobalt consumption was approximately 75,000 metric tons in 2011; China, Japan, and the United States (in order of consumption amount) were the top three cobalt-consuming countries. In 2011, approximately 109,000 metric tons of recoverable cobalt was produced in ores, concentrates, and intermediate products from cobalt, copper, nickel, platinum-group-element (PGE), and zinc operations. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo [Kinshasa]) was the principal source of mined cobalt globally (55 percent). The United States produced a negligible amount of byproduct cobalt as an intermediate product from a PGE mining and refining operation in southeastern Montana; no U.S. production was from mines in which cobalt was the principal commodity. China was the leading refiner of cobalt, and much of its production came from cobalt ores, concentrates, and partially refined materials imported from Congo (Kinshasa).
The mineralogy of cobalt deposits is diverse and includes both primary (hypogene) and secondary (supergene) phases. Principal terrestrial (land-based) deposit types, which represent most of world’s cobalt mine production, include primary magmatic Ni-Cu(-Co-PGE) sulfides, primary and secondary stratiform sediment-hosted Cu-Co sulfides and oxides, and secondary Ni-Co laterites. Seven additional terrestrial deposit types are described in this chapter. The total terrestrial cobalt resource (reserves plus other resources) plus past production, where available, is calculated to be 25.5 million metric tons. Additional resources of cobalt are known to occur on the modern sea floor in aerially extensive deposits of Fe-Mn(-Ni-Cu-Co-Mo) nodules and Fe-Mn(-Co-Mo-rare-earth-element) crusts. Legal, economic, and technological barriers have prevented exploitation of these cobalt resources, which lie at water depths of as great as 6,000 meters, although advances in technology may soon allow production of these resources to be economically viable.
Environmental issues related to cobalt mining concern mainly the elevated cobalt contents in soils and waters. Although at low levels cobalt is essential to human health (it is the central atom in the critical nutrient vitamin B12), overexposure to high levels of cobalt may cause lung and heart dysfunction, as well as dermatitis. The ecological impacts of cobalt vary widely and can be severe for some species of fish and plants, depending on various environmental factors.