Despite some unexpected freakish fall weather, Sudbury’s Frontier Lithium had its day in the sun yesterday.
The junior exploration company was the recipient of a $2-million grant from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund (NOHFC) to further test out its lithium processing technology to complement its future mine project in northwestern Ontario.
Before touring Frontier’s new corporate headquarters, now under construction in the Val Caron industrial park, Premier Doug Ford, flanked by three Northern Ontario cabinet ministers, endured buffeting winds and a hail storm at an outdoor news conference, prompting Frontier's president-CEO, Trevor Walker, to extend a “warm, Northern welcome to our premier,” eliciting a chuckle from chilled onlookers.
Frontier’s future 10,000-square-foot office digs will not house a demonstration-scale lithium processing plant, but it provided a photogenic backdrop for politicians to praise the company as one of the vital links in Ontario’s fledgling critical minerals supply chain.
The company possesses the PAK Project, two large and pure lithium deposits in a remote area near the Manitoba border, and ambitious plans to establish a lithium chemical refinery at a yet-to-be-disclosed location.
Frontier is aiming to be a major supplier to battery-grade lithium hydroxide and lithium salts to the North American electric vehicle and energy storage markets. The grant is earmarked for the construction of a demonstration plant to prove out its lithium salt production capabilities.
The funding announcement was part of a $4.1-million cash drop from NOHFC that saw money also dispatched to four other companies in the mining supply and service sector.
- $1 million went to Sudbury mining equipment supplier Tim McDowell Equipment to expand its facility and purchase equipment.
- $399,977 for Z’Gamok Construction LP in Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation to purchase equipment to expand its operations aggregate hauling and site services in the Algoma-Manitoulin area.
- $390,000 for MOSWA Fuels in Cochrane to purchase new trucks and tankers to haul fuel to the Detour Lake gold mine for Kirkland Lake Gold.
- $310,500 for Sudbury’s Rocvent Inc. and 1887571 Ontario Inc., a manufacturer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flexible mine ducting, to purchase new equipment that will double production of their high-frequency welding units.
Northwestern Ontario has become the prime discovery ground for lithium, much of the land being staked by companies with international ties and Toronto offices.
Greater Sudbury Mayor Paul Lefebvre noted Frontier is the North’s only lithium mining company that will be based in Sudbury.
The funding announcement, he said, showcases Sudbury’s expertise as an “innovative and global leader in environmentally responsible mining.” Its growing green technology sector, built around critical minerals, is a “natural fit” with the city’s ongoing regreening efforts.
“We have the land, the talent and resources to make it all happen.”
Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford, who did some soft lobbying to place Frontier’s refinery in Kenora, said his ministry and the Mines Ministry will “play a key role…in ensuring that extraction is underway in the not too distant future”
Mines Minister George Pirie, who spent the day touring the MIRARCO research facility, the Ontario Geology Survey headquarters, and Glencore’s Nickel Rim Mine, proclaimed the province’s critical mineral strategy “is working.”
With more than $40 million invested by the province to connect the North’s mineral riches with the south’s manufacturing base, Pirie said this is a “tremendous, generational opportunity that we have.”
As a frontrunner in developing Northern Ontario’s lithium potential, Frontier has spent much time and effort on developing its lithium extraction technology.
Earlier this year, Frontier had fixed on a Nairn Centre property, west of Sudbury, for a pilot plant, but Walker told Northern Ontario Business they are scouting a number of locations across the region and have options on one particular property.
Their preference is to place a testing facility next to where a future commercial lithium refinery would be sited.
Other advanced lithium players in northwestern Ontario are considering Thunder Bay and the Township of Red Rock on the north shore of Lake Superior for refinery sites.
“We look in the near future to announce that, in the coming months,” Walker said.
Last week, Frontier announced the start of a feasibility study, a final technical and economic study of its PAK Project. Once the study is finished in 12 to 18 months, the company will make an investment decision.
As there is no permanent all-season road to the isolated mine site, Frontier faces a real infrastructure hurdle, particularly in needing a bridge to cross the Berens River.
Walker acknowledged those challenges in a recent online UK mining analyst show, but he didn’t seem too phased about it yesterday.
He said both top tiers of government have been supportive and he was pleased to see Ottawa’s commitment last week in releasing a $1.5-billion infrastructure fund program dedicated to critical minerals projects.
“The vision is there; the action is taking pace; this takes time.
“This is all-hands-on-deck in Canada to build out the ecosystem for electric vehicles (EV) and energy storage, so all the stakeholders are aligned.”
Walker was also thrilled to see the show of support from the Ontario government in recognizing Frontier’s place in the EV supply chain and their ability to create a value-added mineral product for southern manufacturers.
While Ottawa and Queen’s Park have invested a combined $28 billion to subsidize new electric vehicle battery plants in southwestern Ontario, it's still unknown when that kind of funding will flow north to help the finance the lithium refineries.
Mines Minister Pirie seemed to hint in an interview with Northern Ontario Business that this funding is an eventuality.
“The mines will always be here, that’s for sure, and, of course, we have secured the (battery) plants and we’ll produce the critical minerals to get them into these plants. That's the focus.”
When asked what Ontario can do to expedite construction of the Berens River bridge and a permanent road to reach Frontier's lithium deposits, Pirie replied, “This is an all-ministry approach on this and we’re working on it full-ahead.”