The site of some of Nova Scotia’s earliest iron mines has potential to provide cobalt today, a key mineral in electric car and cell phone batteries.

Little is known about the Specular Iron Mines near Sunnybrae in southern Pictou County. They are referenced in the 1893 annual report of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and a location is provided on a 1902 GSC geology map of the region. However, it is not known when the mines were active, although the GSC report suggests it was likely in the early 1800s or possibly even the late 1700s.

According to the GSC, a "considerable quantity of ore" was produced east of John McDonald’s Brook. Mining also took place in the area of John McDonald's farm and immediately east of the farm.

The iron deposits contained pyrites (fool’s gold), an impurity in iron ore, especially in the historical era when metallurgy (the science of separating metals from ores) was so rudimentary. Perhaps as a result of the pyrites, the Specular Iron Mines were not worked extensively.

Today the former mines are little more than a cluster of small pits and trenches, and one shaft.

The site has seen significant exploration in the modern era and has potential to produce cobalt and other metals. It is in the Cobequid-Chedabucto Fault System (CCFS), which marks where Nova Scotia’s two geological halves, which came from Europe and Africa, collided 400 million years ago as supercontinent Pangea was forming.

The heat and pressure caused by two tectonic plates colliding and rubbing against each other for millions of years caused earthquakes and melted rocks in Earth’s crust. It also caused the concentration of many minerals, including creating many iron deposits, a number of which were mined in the 1800s and 1900s.

The colliding tectonic plates opened up a series of faults (fractures) between the plates. The faults tapped into Earth’s mantle and allowed huge amounts of iron-rich solutions to escape and rise toward Earth’s surface. As these fluids got closer to the surface – away from the heat of Earth’s centre and the heat of the tectonic collision - they cooled and solidified, forming iron deposits like those mined by the Specular mines.

This process also concentrated other minerals. Exploration in the Sunnybrae area has shown that it contains deposits of metals such as cobalt, zinc, copper, nickel and mercury.

Interestingly, the pyrites that were likely a metallurgical problem for the Specular mines host the cobalt, so two centuries later the pyrites are a feature of the deposit, not a problem.

Cobalt is used in the lithium-ion batteries that power electronics and electric vehicles. Demand for cobalt is expected to increase 20-25 times by 2040 for electric vehicles and battery storage (

70% of global cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where child labour is known to be widely used in cobalt mines. The United States Department of Labor recently included lithium-ion batteries on its “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” because 40,000 children are estimated to be involved in cobalt mining in the DRC ( Many other experts and organizations have criticized the DRC’s use of child labour.

Given this, it is likely that some Nova Scotians’ phones, laptops or electric vehicles contain cobalt from mines where children work.

Mining contributes to everything in our daily lives by providing the raw materials most things are made of. If we do not do more mining in western democracies like Canada, more will likely be done in countries that have child labour, or that do not take proper care of the environment or worker safety.

Nova Scotia can contribute more to the ethical supply of minerals the world needs. Doing so would also help us create jobs for Nova Scotians and generate government revenues to help pay for programs like health and education.