Cobalt has been utilised by man for at least the last 2,600 years, dating back to Ancient Egypt providing blue pigments for glassware and ceramics.
2,600 years later, cobalt blue is still used for decoration, enhancing the quality of life. We now know that cobalt, an oligo element, is also bioessential and is found at the centre of vitamin B12, an integral compound for red blood cell formation and neurological health in humans. The uses of cobalt are now very broad and the list is ever expanding, with many contributing significantly to a sustainable planet such as the metal's role in rechargeable batteries.
Considered a Critical Raw Material, cobalt is recognised as an important technology enabling metal where energy storage, high temperature resilience, hardness, process efficiency and environmental benefits are required. Cobalt has a diverse range of important uses from gas turbines and hard metals to rechargeable batteries and industrial catalysts, which are vital in the development of sustainable energy policies for the future.
Cobalt has many uses based on several of its unique properties
In industrial chemical processes cobalt's unique catalytic properties can be used for applications including desulphurisation of hydrocarbons, which is crucial to clean fuel technology, and also the removal of nitrous oxide to ensure that emissions of greenhouse gases are minimised.
Its catalytic qualities are also used in the emerging technology of converting natural gas to liquid hydrocarbons, thus using carbon based resources more efficiently. Recently scientists have developed catalysts capable of efficiently converting carbon dioxide into methanoic acid, a liquid fuel (Nature, 2016).
Base industry also utilises the advantages that cobalt can bring to the hardmetal industry where hard wearing metals and alloys allow the manufacturer to produce highly effective cutting and grinding tools, suitable for a broad range of industrial and manufacturing applications.
The high temperature resistance, hardness and wear characteristics of cobalt when alloyed with other metals can also be put to good use not only in gas turbines, but also as hard surfacing in critical applications where working environments are aggressive (hot, pressurised and/or acidic). By improving wear and durability, operating efficiency can be increased by extending operating life and reducing friction.
So versatile is cobalt that having imparted great physical attributes to many industrial applications, it also has subtle uses such as enabling digital storage and processing.
In particular, cobalt will be at the heart of the drive for alternative and renewable energy systems, whether as a hard wearing/magnetic alloy in wind and wave generators, as a catalyst used for ‘splitting’ water in the newly developing solar energy technologies, or helping power electric vehicles of the future.