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Gold once lured prospectors to the American west - but now it's cobalt that is sparking a rush.

Cobalt mining has not happened at any sort of scale in the United States for decades.

But a handful of mining companies are now staking claims at sites in Idaho, Montana and Alaska in search of the silvery blue mineral.

They are striking examples of the growing interest in cobalt - a key component in the lithium-ion batteries that power electronic devices and electric cars.

In the past, cobalt supply depended on the markets for copper and nickel, more valuable metals that are typically extracted alongside cobalt.

But with cobalt prices on the up and consumption projected to rise by between 8% to 10% a year, its status as a by-product has started to change, says George Heppel, senior analyst at research firm CRU Group in London.

First Cobalt mine

First Cobalt hopes to develop its Idaho mine in three years

About 300 companies worldwide are now on the hunt for cobalt deposits, CRU estimates.

Mining giants such as Glencore are also boosting production in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where most of the world's cobalt is found.

In the US, limited cobalt production started in 2014 for the first time in about four decades.

Canada-based First Cobalt bought a mine in Idaho this spring and hopes to get it developed in about three years.

Cobalt, rather than copper or another metal, is its main focus for the mine, says chief executive Trent Mell.

"Miners like us have never actually gone looking for cobalt," he says. "There's a lot of cobalt in the world. As miners, we're behind."

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