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The Drift: Temiskaming battery metals park should fill missing link in electric vehicle battery supply chain

Electra Battery Materials' integrated metals processing complex could bring 200 to 300 jobs
Electra plant
(Electra Battery Materials photo)

Trent Mell and Electra Battery Materials are out to occupy some crucial middle ground in the growing North American electric vehicle industry.

The Toronto company is refurbishing a once-shuttered refinery outside the town of Cobalt that's 12 months away from the start of production to process cobalt hydroxide coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo into cobalt sulfate, one of the critical materials needed for manufacturing rechargeable batteries for the automakers.

But they're not stopping there.

The cobalt processing plant will be only the first of a proposed four-phase expansion project at the Temiskaming site that will include nickel processing, battery recycling, and a next-step process to blend cobalt and nickel into a battery precursor material.

Pouring concrete for the foundations of new buildings begins in March. If all goes according to the company's timelines, a fully integrated plant complex should be built out by 2026, creating between 200 and 300 direct jobs, according to Mell, Electra's president-CEO.

The restart of the former Yukon refinery has excited many in the Temiskaming district.

"We don't have to look too hard for people," said Mell of the local reception they received. "They're calling us up; they love the story.

"Probably my biggest surprise is the quality of the workforce we've been able to attract even though we're a small company and not yet producing."

More importantly, the refinery could fill a vital role to establish a secure domestic supply chain of battery-grade metals, and help the Canadian and U.S. governments make good on their commitments to achieve zero-emission economies by the 2030s.

According to Mell, in the global battery supply chain, China  dominates, processing 80 per cent of the world's cobalt used in electric vehicle batteries, 90 per cent of the nickel, and 100 per cent of the manganese, all crucial elements in NCM-type batteries to be used in the future cars we'll drive.

Electra is making a case to bring it all home, to mine the critical metals in North America, process it in Temiskaming, and create the cathode material that's used by the battery manufacturers supplying the electric vehicle car assembly plants.

"You're saving on carbon footprint; you're saving on costs, on logistics," said Mell.

Electra's concept for Temiskaming —dubbed a battery metals park — will be modelled after facilities in China and Finland.

While some in the mining industry —especially at the federal lobbying level — think Canada has slipped a notch in becoming a dominant global player in the critical minerals supply chain, Mell and Electra were in Queen's Park last month bringing Premier Doug Ford up to speed on their ambitious plans.

Just before last Christmas, the federal and provincial governments supported the company's cobalt-processing plan with a combined $10 million that proved to be a much-needed jumpstart to raise the remaining money for their project.

To build their battery park complex over the next five years, Mell estimates the cost to be somewhere in the $400-million to $500-million range.

Early stages of expansion would be financed by revenues from processing, but eventually Electra wants to secure a joint venture manufacturing partner to make the blended precursor material, to be co-located on the Temiskaming property.

Precursor material involves mixing cobalt, nickel and manganese into the right concentrations and particle size to make the active cathode material used by lithium-ion battery makers.

An attached battery recycling operation brings a new element to the supply chain ecosystem.

As much as 25 per cent of feed material is actually wasted during battery production, Mell said.

"A real prize for us is to partner with a battery company and any wastage and battery scrap mate they have, we'll turn it around and put it back into the supply chain," said Mell.

But they'll  also be recovering valuable metals, so-called 'black mass,' from spent lithium batteries taken from electronic and digital consumer products.

Electra expects to announce feed contracts with battery manufacturers and car companies in early 2022.

The decision to go big in Temiskaming and create an industrial cluster, Mell said, came at the urging of the major automakers.

Simply processing cobalt wasn't enough. They had to pursue other steps needed to fill that middle space in the battery supply chain picture.

"We had to take that next step." Mell said. "It's a huge opportunity. Nobody's got a site like ours, a permitted hydrometallurgical site."

Strategic shifts are nothing new for Electra.

The company, formerly known as First Cobalt, arrived in the Temiskaming region as a junior mining company in 2017, hot on the trail of discarded cobalt left behind from the Silver Rush days at the turn of the last century.

While seeking to merge two competing companies and consolidate 50 historic mines in the Cobalt camp, Electra acquired the former Yukon refinery as a throw-in on the transaction. 

"I wasn't sure I wanted it," said Mell, thinking about the environmental liabilities associated with the facility.

But it took the company in a "whole different direction," from an exploration outfit to a would-be critical metals processor.

The refinery, which Mell once described as a "diamond in the rough," is located on 120 acres five kilometres outside the town of Cobalt. 

Relatively new and already permitted, it was built in 1996 and operated on and off by another company, producing a cobalt carbonate product and other refined nickel and silver material. The facility was mothballed in 2015 when its Swiss owners ran out of money. 

It's now the cornerstone of Electra's plans.

Electra sold and optioned off its Temiskaming exploration properties, but still retains a cobalt property in Idaho, which it hopes to bring into production and eventually feed the raw material into their refinery.

Currently at the refinery site, Electra is conducting some baseline environmental work to update its permitting requirements, refitting existing equipment, while doing the detailed engineering for the expansion and making equipment orders.

Metso Outotec was selected for the design and manufacturing of the equipment for a new solvent extraction plant, but Mell said there will be plenty of spinoff opportunities next year for Northern Ontario companies to participate. A New Liskeard consulting company, EXP, is organizing all their procurement activities.

Electra has been emphasizing the use of local firms to supply equipment and services wherever they can.

Of note, a foundation contract for a new building on site was recently awarded to a New Liskeard firm. A local engineering company is currently contracted with Electra to provide a significant portion of the engineering services for the project.

Mell said one of the many benefits of the refinery's location is the proximity to mining mechanical expertise in Sudbury, a two-hour drive away.

"Where we need Sudbury is going to be on the processing side once we commission the equipment and get the plant up and running."

By way of skilled workers, the company said it will need qualified tradespeople to both build and operate the facility. They're looking for millwrights, electricians and instrumentation technicians, as well as people to run heavy equipment and drive forklifts.

Mell seemed confident Electra will be able to round up a talented local workforce without having to recruit from afar.

When he was working for AuRico Gold, the former owners of the Young-Davidson Mine in nearby Matachewan, workers would routinely commute from an hour away from New Liskeard, Kirkland Lake and Timmins.

"To have a site like ours, eight minutes from town (Temiskaming Shores) has been a big draw," Mell said, especially for experienced older workers desiring a slower pace.

On the logistics front, with tens of thousands of tonnes arriving from Africa, and landing at the Port of Montreal, there will be opportunities for truckers and railroaders.

Mell admits he'd love to see the Ontario government and the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) help build a rail spur running onto the refinery site from the ONR's main line a couple of kilometres away. 

Electra has contracts with Glencore and China Molybdenum to source cobalt hydroxide from the Democratic Republic of Congo for five years.

But, ultimately, Mell said, their aspirational long-term goal is source all of their raw cobalt and nickel from Ontario and from their Idaho cobalt property.

Mell believes the electrification of North American vehicles will create the extreme demand-side pressure that will bring currently uneconomical nickel deposits in the Sudbury basin into production.

On the ground in Temiskaming, Mell said, it's all about managing expectations.

"The town has been disappointed before on the mining side in reinvigorating the old Cobalt camp, so I try and take a slow and steady approach.

"I don't over-promise and I'm mindful when dealing with local stakeholders, reminding them that these take time. But the community has been nothing but fantastic. I have nothing but good things to say."

The Drift features profiles on the people, companies and institutions making important contributions to Greater Sudbury’s mining sector. From exploration, operation and remediation to research and innovation, this series covers the breadth of mining-related expertise that was born out of one of the world’s richest mining camps and is now exported around the world.