These are boom times in the Cobalt camp, but this is entirely new territory for Gino Chitaroni.
“I’ve been in this business more than 30 years, I’ve never seen this before,” said the president of the Northern Prospectors Association.
The worldwide search for green-tech minerals, like cobalt, to feed the exploding electric vehicle and lithium battery market has put the historic silver mining district back in the spotlight for a largely discarded by-product metal.
“Eighteen months ago, if someone breathed the word cobalt, I would have thought they were on crack,” chuckles Chitaroni, a third-generation Cobalt-area miner and president of Polymet Labs in the town of Cobalt.
With intimate knowledge of the district, Chitaroni has quietly served as a pathfinder for incoming exploration companies to help them stake the best prospective cobalt ground in the last year and a half.
“I’ve made more deals in the cobalt sector than I ever done in my lifetime,” said Chitaroni in reflecting on the last year where cobalt prices jumped from US $9 an ounce to $27 in early July.
“Much richer deals compared to the gold and silver sector. That’s a product of the frenzy behind the massive search for cobalt.”
Chitaroni said every mapped or recorded cobalt occurrence between the town of Cobalt, Silver Centre and west toward the Gowganda-Shining Tree area has been staked, leased or bought. “They’re all gone.”
The only available ground is relatively virgin territory with prospective geology but no history of exploration. That’s good news for an economically stagnate town like Cobalt , and its mining-related businesses, to reap the rewards of ongoing exploration, bulk sampling and possibly test mining over the next few years.
“What I predict is you’re going to have a whole new raft of discoveries with silver being found, base metal prospects and even gold,” said Chitaroni.
The Cobalt camp has seen boom cycles before, beginning with the original silver rush in 1903-04, then a resurgence of silver and cobalt interest following the Second World War, followed by brief blips of activity depending on world supply and demand.
Chitaroni said the Temagami Land Claim, an Indigenous territorial dispute, which began in the 1970s and lasted into early 1990s, effectively killed exploration over a vast swath of the northeast. The area has not been exposed to modern exploration techniques in the last 30 years.
Decades ago, cobalt was a strategic metal used an ingredient for armour plating and high-temperature components for jet engines.
Today’s high-tech revolution has changed everything. Chitaroni said society is trending toward greener technologies, and the world supply of cobalt is not expected to meet the market demand over the next five years.
“It’s going to mean cobalt prices increasing exponentially and they already have."
Cobalt is never found on its own but is always mixed with silver, copper, nickel and other metals.
The mining mantra in the district was, the vein of cobalt led you to the silver. The old Silver Rush miners never quantified the volume of cobalt, often leaving it underground due to the narrow vein silver mining done in the early 20th century.
“Cobalt came as a by-product and most times it was a headache for processing because it retarded the recovery of silver,” said Chitaroni.
“In later years, the arsenic content made it difficult for smelters to want to process it.”
He frowns on new cobalt miners digging through exhausted surface stockpiles to reprocess waste material rather than generating new feedstock from underground.
“There are places you can go underground fairly quickly. Opening up (old mines) and going underground is definitely in the DNA of the Cobalt camp.”
One of the bigger camp players, First Cobalt Corp., is studying the option of open-pit mining, a method never tried before in the camp but one that Chitaroni favours.
“It’s a concept whose time has come.”
But to make the economics really work, Chitaroni said these operations must be polymetallic, with other metals like silver, copper, zinc and gold recovered.
The real value in the Cobalt camp is in the unmined silver in the shallow past-producing mines, he maintains.
Today’s skyrocketing cobalt prices can provide the project financing, “but it’s everything else that will make this go.”
If silver prices – posted at US $17 an ounce in July – were to reach $35 to $40, “it would change the economics dramatically.”
Chitaroni said it’s unrealistic to expect the northeast will replace the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The world production of cobalt is between 90,000 and 100,000 tonnes annually. The Congo contributes 60 per cent of it.
“We’ll be a player but not the player,” he said.
Congolese copper companies could suddenly dump their cobalt reserves on the market, but they would also be unnecessarily flooding the market with excess copper, he said.
And with buyers like Tesla wanting to avoid countries producing conflict minerals, Ontario offers a politically safe and stable jurisdiction that could feed socially conscious North American companies.
Chitaroni is encouraged by the proposed June merger and consolidation of cobalt camp properties involving First Cobalt, Cobalt One and CobalTech; and he expects to more to take place.
In 10 to 15 years, he forecasts the start of one or two super-pits, or numerous short-term “baby pits,” feeding a centralized milling and refining facility, processing 2,500 to 4,000 tonnes of cobalt metal annually, mixed in with silver, copper and other recovered metals.
That would require investment in local mills and refineries to expand them well beyond their current capacity.
The Yukon Refinery in North Cobalt is pilot plant-sized but is permitted to be much larger. But it would also offer international toll refining opportunities.
It would make the Cobalt area a substantial producer on the world market, Chitaroni said.
“What we keep forgetting is that this area has some of the best mining infrastructure in the world, and some of the best suppliers that are really close to us. When it comes to a place to put together a mine, there can’t be a better place than Cobalt, Ontario.”