2017 — Year of the Blue Rooster?
Written by Dr Klaus L E Kaiser
According to the Chinese calendar, this year (2017 A.D.) is also the “Lunar Year of the Fire Rooster.” In accustomed fashion, Canada Post (CP) has issued a special stamp that celebrates the occasion with a new rooster issue, surely with more vivid colors than in the previous “Wood Rooster” (2005) issue.
With the Lunar calendar cycle repeating every 11 (Gregorian) calendar years or so, what’s different now? If you are an artist, you might note that (as per CP), the 2017 issue is significantly more red than the previous stamp, more or less artistic, and so forth. In both stamps the color blue is essentially absent. However, the rooster may not be as important as other “elements” for this year, namely the color BLUE and the element cobalt.
The Element Cobalt
You may wonder though, what “nonsense” am I writing about now? No-one has ever heard of the year of “blue rooster” before and, what is “cobalt” anyway?
Well, my dear readers, cobalt is one of the 100+ naturally occurring elements on earth. In fact, you are probably quite familiar with it though may not have been aware of it. Ever heard of “Ming Dynasty” vases or seen “Delft Blue” dishes with blue ornaments, like medieval windmills and the like? Modern versions of such traditional blue-decorated Dutch “china” are widely available. You could not possibly overlook them at The Netherland’s biggest airport “Shiphol” at Amsterdam or other places with souvenirs from that country or antiquities, such as shown in the picture nearby.
What you may not have been aware of, all the blue patterns on that porcelain are caused by the element cobalt!
You may wonder, is blue Delftware now becoming a new rarity? No, no need to worry, blue Delftware is still plentiful at Shiphol, but the element cobalt is increasingly being sought after, not so much for the purpose of decorating porcelain but for use in batteries, specifically lithium-ion batteries that use lithium-cobalt-oxide for energy storage.
The Year of Cobalt
In former times, the element cobalt has always been associated with problems. Already its name is derived from an ancient term, loosely translated from medieval German as “goblin.” That term was meant to describe the then prevailing difficulty in separating and refining the (then) more valuable elements, like lead, zinc, and silver in the presence of cobalt. Without the modern knowledge of chemistry, these “kobold [cobalt, kobalt, etc.] goblins” were nothing but a great nuisance to miners and refiners of the time.
Well, times have changed. Nowadays, the element cobalt (“Co,” in chemical nomenclature) is undergoing a renaissance of sort, being a critical component in lithium (another element) containing batteries of the type found in cell-phones, laptop computers, and the like. The world’s current craze to replace fossil fuels and internal combustion engines with electric battery-powered devices is pushing both lithium and cobalt to new heights of interest.
According to the German trade magazine Handelsblatt, the price of cobalt has risen by 50% over the last few months. In fact, that magazine refers to the year 2017 not as the “Year of the Rooster” but as the “Year of Cobalt.” Not surprisingly then, hedge-funds and other speculators are rapidly locking up the existing supplies of the element and anticipated future production. Battery makers like the Tesla Co. will have taken note of that too and hedged their anticipated requirements; that’s where the Congo becomes of interest.
Now, how did we get from Dutch blue china ornaments to the Congo? Oh, yeah, cobalt. As it so happens, the nations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its smaller neighbor the Republic of the Congo in Africa are, at least currently, major sources of cobalt-bearing minerals that provide more than half of the world’s production. Much of the cobalt ore mined in both countries is produced by the estimated 100,000 “artisanal” miners digging in small shafts and tunnels, mostly with hand tools. Though these small scale enterprises are dangerous work, they may be more efficient and provide more local income than a few large-scale strip-mines with humongous machines and all kinds of mechanized systems.
In any event, the Congo River area continues to be a major source of the world’s need and source of the “newly discovered” element cobalt. However, the question remaining is whether this year of the “Fire Rooster,” perhaps, may also become known as the year of the (Cobalt)—”Blue Rooster.” If so, will it also be good for the Congolese artisanal miners; who knows?
Just don’t bet your blue china on it!