Cobalt, whose name is derived from a German word meaning “evil spirits,” has been valued by humans since the Egyptians used it in 2000 BC as a coloring agent.
The mineral is considered one of the world’s essential elements. Its high melting point and ability to maintain strength even at raised temperatures make it useful in cutting tools, super alloys, surface coatings, high-speed steels and numerous other applications.
Cobalt in batteries
One of cobalt’s main applications is in rechargeable batteries of all kinds. The mineral is essential to the manufacturing of these batteries because it gives batteries high energy density. Demand for rechargeable batteries in electronics has risen sharply in the last couple of decades. While in the mid-1990s, only 1 percent of cobalt was used in electronics, that has now risen to around 35 percent. This number is expected to continue to rise due to increased demand for cell phones, electric cars and other items that require rechargeable batteries.
Early versions of nickel-metal hydride batteries had problems such as a poor life cycle, internal cell pressure and corrosion. However, engineers have found that the addition of cobalt to batteries helps overcome many of these issues. Similarly, the first versions of lithium-ion batteries were found to be too reactive, resulting in battery fires. These batteries have been stabilized and now contain up to 60 percent cobalt per cell.
Increased demand for cell phones, car batteries, laptop computers and other items that rely on rechargeable batteries has resulted in a huge jump in the price of cobalt in the last 10 years. As a result, there have been efforts to find an acceptable substitute for the mineral. Though early efforts tended to result in an inferior product, industry insiders believe that many of the problems that were initially faced are going to be overcome in the next several years. However, a substitute for cobalt in the rechargeable batteries that are essential to electric cars has not been found. Because of that, insiders are predicting that demand for the mineral will increase somewhat dramatically in the coming decade.
Other cobalt applications
Cobalt is used in many places aside from batteries. Its ability to stand up to high temperatures and its good oxidation resistance make it an essential alloying element for super alloys, which are used for casting airfoils and other structural parts of jet turbine engines. Cobalt alloys also have a fairly high tolerance for thermal fatigue and can be repaired easily. Most high bypass turbofan jet engines contain between 110 and 132 pounds of cobalt.
The metal is also an essential element in the metabolism of humans and other animals — those who cannot retain cobalt naturally have to be treated with B12 vitamin therapy. Cobalt is also used in soil dressings in cobalt-deficient soil to prevent “wasting disease” in grazing animals.