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Thunder Bay has potential to be the hub for hydrometallurgy activity

New method of extracting metals offers environmentally-friendly step forward

A recent study released by Thunder Bay CEDC highlights the region's potential to act as a hub for climate-conscious hydrometallurgy projects.  

"Northwestern Ontario and the Lake Superior Region are blessed with world-class copper-nickel-palladium deposits; many on the cusp of production," says John Mason, Mining Services Project Manager at Thunder Bay CEDC. "Thunder Bay is well-positioned to process the mineralization from these deposits and produce green critical minerals for a modern climate-conscious society."

Mason explained that everything from the electrification of vehicles to battery construction requires nickel, and palladium is used as a catalytic converter for clean air for internal combustion engines and hybrid vehicles. 

Copper, nickel and palladium are all perceived as critical metals by Canada and the US, he added, and they play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gases and slowing climate change. 

For example, the metals could also provide improved storage for renewable energy sources like wind and solar. 

"You need a battery provision where you can store that power when the wind isn't blowing, or the sun isn't shining, and you can use these metals as an opportunity to maximize the value out of those renewables," he said. 

Mason described the trio as the key metals the world is looking for, and the study suggests Thunder Bay is the ideal location to process them. 

Not only is Thunder Bay a central hub for mining, its skilled labor pool, low carbon electricity, available water and port and transportation capability make it a well-established location for supplying the metal required by the green economy, Mason explained.  

"We have a series of deposits that radiate out from Thunder Bay that could provide seed concentrate for a hydrometallurgical facility," he said. 

Cleaner metals located north of Thunder Bay and deposits in Minnesota and Michigan currently lack a hydrometallurgical facility. Northern Minnesota specifically has some of the world's largest copper, nickel, cobalt and palladium deposit. 

"They are on the cusp of production but not quite there yet. But they have feasibility studies that point to the need for a hydrometallurgical facility," he noted. 

Mason explained that only one facility — located on the Ontario part of Lake Superior — is needed, which could provide an international solution for North America. 

"Many countries are aware of this type of technology, but it's a question of ramping up the conversation,” he said.

The Long Harbour Processing Plant (LHPP) based in Newfoundland is a hydrometallurgy success story. In 2014, a hydrometallurgical program was launched to explore the feasibility of the technology. Based on the program's success, a commercial scale hydrometallurgy facility was built and employs approximately 500 people, most of which are from Newfoundland and Labrador. 

The Hydrometallurgical process is a more modern, environmentally appropriate way to extract metals than the historically accepted smelting method, Mason explained. Several different technologies exist under the label of hydrometallurgy: the Albion process, CESL process, Platsol process and the Process Research Ortech (PRO process). 

"This is a real opportunity to minimize the environmental impacts for this type of technology and create metals for the future sustainable green economy."