‘This is a Sud­bury story’

City, north could become cen­tre for elec­tric car batteries

The Sudbury Star - - FRONT PAGE - JIM MOODIE

With elec­tri­cal ve­hi­cles poised to ex­plode in com­ing years, a Sud­bury company is hop­ing to es­tab­lish what it calls a “bat­tery ecosys­tem” in North­ern On­tario.

“You need to have a lithium mine first, and mines will build chem­i­cal plants,” said Bora Ugurgel, man­ager of in­vestor relations with Fron­tier Lithium, based in Val Caron.

The ju­nior min­ing company is de­vel­op­ing a lithium mine in north­west­ern On­tario that hosts the “high­est quality de­posit in North America,” he said, and ex­pects a pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity can also take shape in our region.

In Quebec, “com­peti­tors are try­ing to build a mine, con­cen­tra­tor and chem­i­cal plant all at the same time,” said Ugurgel, but his company’s fo­cus is to make sure the sup­ply of high-grade lithium is avail­able first.

“The mo­ment you have the mine, then you will get into creating a chem­i­cal factory, which will cre­ate the chem­i­cals that go into bat­tery mak­ing,” he said. “And the last step of that is you need a bat­tery man­u­fac­turer that will take that ma­te­rial and put the an­odes and cath­odes and elec­trolytes to­gether to pro­duce the bat­tery.”

Ugurgel be­lieves all that can be re­al­ized in On­tario in the next few years. And while Sud­bury may not have lithium it­self, it could play a ma­jor role in sup­ply­ing other bat­tery in­gre­di­ents, such as nickel and cobalt, as well as re­cy­cling them once the batteries have lost their juice.

“Pre­vi­ously I was the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer at the Cen­tre for Ex­cel­lence in Min­ing In­no­va­tion, and the big­gest chal­lenge in the Sud­bury basin is deep min­ing and the cost of deep min­ing,” he said. “There’s nickel in those batteries, so if you have a rea­son­able way of re­cy­cling those re­sources at sur­face, that has to be in our fu­ture even­tu­ally.”

In the mean­time, Fron­tier Lithium has en­tered into a strate­gic part­ner­ship with XPS Ex­pert Process So­lu­tions, a Glen­core company, and Queen’s Univer­sity professor Ah­mad Ghahre­man to de­velop a process to re­fine spo­dumene (a mineral con­tain­ing lithium) into lithium hy­drox­ide.

The lat­ter is needed for “high nickel cath­ode on a bat­tery,” said Ugurgel. “This is important for us be­cause newer technologies that Tesla and other car pro­duc­ers are us­ing call for high nickel cath­odes — which is a fantastic story for Sud­bury (be­cause it pro­duces nickel) but also a fantastic story for us, be­cause they have to use lithium hy­drox­ide.”

The ma­te­rial can also be found in brines from South America, he said, but “it’s more price-com­pet­i­tive out of hard rock, and that’s how we differentiate in the global mar­ket.”

The first phase of the project will eval­u­ate “the potential pu­rity and re­cov­ery of lithium from con­cen­trates to ul­ti­mately im­prove com­mer­cial un­der­stand­ing and pro­vide data for gen­er­a­tion of a con­tin­u­ous pi­lot process,” ac­cord­ing to a re­lease.

Do­minic Fragomeni, vice-pres­i­dent of XPS, said his company is “very pleased” to be work­ing with Fron­tier Lithium and the Queen’s re­searcher on the col­lab­o­ra­tive project.

“Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults show prom­ise for be­ing able to pro­duce lithium hy­drox­ide at a higher pu­rity and at a lower cost com­pared to the in­dus­try av­er­age,” he said.

Fron­tier Lithium CEO Trevor Walker said the al­liance will “spear­head the pro­duc­tion of high-quality, bat­tery-grade lithium prod­ucts in North­ern On­tario and help es­tab­lish our region as a sig­nif­i­cant Cana­dian con­trib­u­tor to clean-en­ergy tech­nol­ogy.”

An­other company head­quar­tered in Aus­tralia is plan­ning to es­tab­lish a chem­i­cal plant in Sud­bury that would pro­duce lithium from mineral con­cen­trate. The lat­ter would be im­ported from Spain, although it could even­tu­ally come from north­west­ern On­tario as well.

The Le­pidico op­er­a­tion is ex­pected to be up and run­ning in a demon­stra­tion ca­pac­ity by 2020 and em­ploy as many as 70 peo­ple.

Ugurgel said the two Sud­bury-re­lated lithium projects are quite dif­fer­ent in na­ture and scope, how­ever.

“One is a skate­board and the other one is a car,” he analo­gized. “Le­pidico from Aus­tralia is try­ing to build a plant in our back­yard, while we are a Cana­dian company out of Sud­bury with a world-class as­set in North­ern On­tario. They’re to­tally dif­fer­ent jour­neys and ap­proaches.”

He said min­ing for lithium is no dif­fer­ent from the kind of hard-rock min­ing that has made Sud­bury fa­mous, but pre­mium troves of this metal are few and far be­tween.

“There are only two of them in the world,” said Ugurgel. “One of them is in Aus­tralia, and the other is in north­west­ern On­tario, where we have a de­posit, and three other prospec­tive de­posits, north of Red Lake.”

This lithium-rich area has been dubbed Elec­tric Av­enue for its potential to con­trib­ute to the EV boom. “It’s an emerging, pre­mium lithium metal dis­trict hosted in the Cana­dian shield of north­west­ern On­tario,” he said.

At this point Fron­tier Lithium is in the “late stage of ex­plo­ration and in the process of ap­ply­ing for ad­vanced ex­plo­ration,” he said, but the pub­licly traded company has great faith in the quality of its de­posit and an­tic­i­pates becoming a sig­nif­i­cant player in the in­dus­try.

The company is “work­ing to­ward becoming a near-term pro­ducer with the ob­jec­tive to ramp up to sup­ply 30,000 tonnes lithium car­bon­ate equiv­a­lent, ap­prox­i­mately three per cent of the world’s lithium demand, by 2025,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment.

Ugurgel said the lithium his company has iden­ti­fied for ex­trac­tion is “very low in im­pu­ri­ties,” which also makes it suitable for high-quality, shatter-proof glass — as might be used by Corn­ing, in smart­phone screens or as cook­stove sur­faces.

“The mo­ment you crush it and grind it, and go through a small con­cen­tra­tor, you can sell that as a prod­uct in the glass mar­ket, with­out need­ing a smelter to fur­ther re­fine it,” he said.

Some of the ma­te­rial was sent to a glass factory south of Paris, France, where its suitabil­ity for this kind of ap­pli­ca­tion was con­firmed, he said.

What isn’t shipped off to the glass mar­ket, mean­while, “will go into bat­tery mak­ing im­me­di­ately,” he said. “Creme de la creme goes to­ward glass mak­ing, and the leftover goes into batteries.”

Ugurgel used the anal­ogy of start­ing with a steak in­stead of ground beef to make a burger.

“We have a sub­stan­tial cut here, so we can put some into glass use, and the rest is ground into burger (for batteries),” he said. “But that burger is still bet­ter than most burg­ers be­cause it’s com­ing from the steak meat.”

While elec­tric ve­hi­cles and the batteries re­quired to power them are part of a global trend, Ugurgel is proud his company has a lo­cal fo­cus.

“This is a Sud­bury story,” he said. “It’s not a Bay Street, down-in-Toronto kind of story. We could have opened up shop down there very eas­ily to ac­cess the fi­nanc­ing, but we are North­ern peo­ple. Most of our man­age­ment and board of di­rec­tors are North­ern, out of the Sud­bury and Thun­der Bay re­gions, and this is where the ex­per­tise lies.”

The team is also very com­mit­ted to seeing the project through to a full-fledged min­ing op­er­a­tion, he said, rather than just shep­herd it through the ex­plo­ration phase.

“They want to get into min­ing, not just be pro­fes­sional ex­plor­ers or ju­niors that will sell it off to the high­est bid­der next,” he said. “We be­lieve lithium is a grow­ing demand and it’s go­ing to be even more so in the near fu­ture with more elec­tri­cal ve­hi­cles on the road. The ques­tion we ask is, who are we go­ing to rely upon to be able to bring that into re­al­ity for Canada?”

RICH PEDRONCELLI/AP PHOTO

Tesla Mo­tors model S cars are charged at the new Tesla Gi­gafac­tory, Tues­day, July 26, 2016, in Sparks, Nev. Projects in Sud­bury could po­si­tion the region in elec­tric car bat­tery pro­duc­tion.

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