The giant rocky outcrop known by locals as La Cobaltera offers a glimpse into northern Chile’s mining past, and a hint of its future.
Slag from an ancient furnace is piled at the entrance of a mine shaft that hasn’t seen commercial activity since World War II. Inside, eucalyptus posts still support narrow tunnels, placed there by German engineers as a kind of alarm system: when they creaked it was a sign the tunnel might collapse.
Now the global hunt for cobalt, a key commodity in the electric-vehicle revolution, is rousing the sleepy community on the edge of Chile’s northern desert. Trucks are bouncing down the meandering dirt road from Freirina, carrying modern mining equipment to La Cobaltera.
On a recent morning, workers operated a drilling machine that rattled the ground as they dug as deep as 90 meters (295 feet) for mineral samples. When a drill core was pulled out, the workers cheered the appearance of a column of compact rock peppered with bright green for copper, and black for cobalt.
Chile, known for its vast copper deposits, is joining the search for cobalt amid soaring demand for a metal that’s mostly mined in the politically risky Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt had been a niche commodity used in jet engines and gas turbines; now it’s entering the mainstream because of properties that keep rechargeable batteries from overheating.
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