On the hunt for bat­tery resources

Swe­den’s min­er­als key to EU’s goal of a lo­cal in­dus­try

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Ni­clas Rolan­der Bloomberg News

Be­ing home to Europe’s big­gest rock col­lec­tion has fi­nally come in handy for Swe­den amid the global race for the scarce met­als that power elec­tric cars.

For more than a cen­tury, the Nordic na­tion has ac­cu­mu­lated thou­sands of ore sam­ples — so many that if they were laid end to end, they’d stretch from Min­neapo­lis to Mex­ico and be­yond. They’re stored at the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of Swe­den’s drill core archive, where vis­i­tors pay about $100 a day to ex­am­ine rocks stashed in wooden crates in hopes of spot­ting rich de­posits of min­er­als such as cobalt, the bluish-grey min­eral that’s got car­mak­ers in a tizzy.

Ini­tially ex­tracted in search of base met­als such as iron ore or copper, the rocks are get­ting a sec­ond look be­cause Swe­den is a rare part of Europe that boasts all the raw ma­te­ri­als used to make bat­ter­ies.

“If you’re in min­eral ex­plo­ration, this is re­ally the only place to be,” said Amanda Scott, a ge­ol­o­gist who helps min­ing com­pa­nies find the best spots for min­er­als such as cobalt, lithium and vana­dium.

The li­brary is about a nine-hour drive north of the cap­i­tal Stock­holm, in the forests of the Lapland province. The col­lec­tion has long drawn ge­ol­o­gists fas­ci­nated by the Baltic Shield, the seg­ment of the Earth’s crust that en­com­passes Swe­den and is rich in Pre­cam­brian crys­talline rock, among Europe’s old­est.

But the fo­cus has changed as the global hunt for bat­tery min­eral resources prompts min­ers and ge­ol­o­gists to re-ex­am­ine old ex­plo­ration sites in Ge­ol­o­gist Ed­ward Lynch points at a map of Swe­den at the drill core archive of the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of Swe­den in Mala.

places such as Canada, western Aus­tralia and Fin­land, cur­rently the only place in the Euro­pean Union that ex­tracts cobalt.

Bring­ing Swe­den into the fold is im­por­tant for Euro­pean car­mak­ers be­cause 60 per­cent of global pro­duc­tion cen­ters on Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, where cor­rup­tion is ram­pant and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional has chron­i­cled the use of child la­bor at some mines. Most of Congo’s cobalt, mean­while, is re­fined in China, which has dom­i­nated the bat­tery sup­ply chain.

If ex­ploited, Swe­den’s cobalt re­serves could power more than 4 mil­lion ve­hi­cles, some­thing the gov­ern­ment is bet­ting will re­vive the min­ing in­dus­try af­ter this decade’s com­mod­ity slump sti­fled new projects. Last year, it is­sued a record num­ber of ex­plo­ration per­mits for bat­tery met­als, in­clud­ing 48 for cobalt.

“Swe­den won’t reach the lev­els that Congo has, but it can def­i­nitely play a part in the Euro­pean mar­ket,” said

Par Wei­hed, a pro­fes­sor in ore ge­ol­ogy and pro vice chan­cel­lor at the Lulea Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in north­ern Swe­den. “There is very good ge­o­log­i­cal po­ten­tial for ba­si­cally all crit­i­cal met­als.”

In a coun­try that spans about 930 miles from top to bot­tom, the drill-core li­brary is the best place to start the ex­plo­ration process. The col­lec­tion was drawn from 18,000 drill holes, and the cylin­dri­cal ore sam­ples span 3,000 kilo­me­ters, six times longer than the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey’s re­search cen­ter in Den­ver.

Be­fore spend­ing mil­lions on ex­ploratory drilling, min­ers can take length­wise sec­tions of ex­ist­ing ore for met­al­lur­gi­cal test­ing — grind­ing it down to see how much of a de­sired min­eral they can sep­a­rate out to make con­cen­trate.

Un­til re­cently, cobalt — used to sta­bi­lize the molec­u­lar struc­ture of lithium-ion bat­ter­ies — was only worth ex­ca­vat­ing as a byprod­uct of

things such as copper and nickel. But its price has soared 140 per­cent in the past two years as car­mak­ers from Tesla to BMW an­nounced fleets of elec­tric cars that will tip de­mand above sup­ply in just a cou­ple of years.

That shift has been keep­ing Scott busy. She opened a con­sul­tancy steps away from the drill core li­brary in 2016 to help min­ers fig­ure out where to start on-site ex­plo­ration, and her client base has quadru­pled since.

Aus­tralia’s Talga Resources, for one, used the archive to iden­tify four pos­si­ble cobalt hot spots in north­ern Swe­den, in­clud­ing at the Kiskama min­ing site that had been a fo­cal point for copper and gold min­ing in the 1970s and ’80s. Some of the 95 sam­ples dug out dur­ing that time were re­ex­am­ined for their cobalt con­tent.

“This is Swe­den’s big­gest op­por­tu­nity for a real cobalt project,” Martin Phillips, Talga’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, said on the side­lines of

the Euro Mine Expo trade fair in Skelleftea, Swe­den, in late June. While the grade of cobalt at Kiskama is poorer than Congo’s, it’s eas­ier to ex­tract from the sur­face us­ing open-pit min­ing be­cause the ore body is a lot wider, he said.

At about 19,000 tons, Swe­den’s known re­serves are none­the­less mea­ger com­pared with Congo’s 3.5 mil­lion. Even Fin­land has resources amount­ing to about 446,000 tons, although not all of that may be eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble to ex­tract.

Yet the EU needs ev­ery ounce of cobalt it can get if it has any chance of achiev­ing a plan un­veiled last year to build a home­grown “bat­tery ecosys­tem” that re­duces re­liance on Africa and China.

To this end, Fin­land set up a state-owned com­pany to sup­port bat­tery pro­duc­tion. In Swe­den, two for­mer Tesla ex­ec­u­tives es­tab­lished North­volt to build a bat­tery fac­tory with ca­pac­ity for 32 gi­gawatt-hours, enough to power 320,000 Model-S Tes­las ev­ery year with 100 KWh packs.

That’s still a few years away, and in the mean­time, gi­ants such as Pana­sonic and LG Chem are dom­i­nat­ing the bat­tery scene. New Asian en­trants En­ergy Ab­so­lute PCL in Thai­land and China’s BYD Co. are also plan­ning big­ger fac­to­ries than North­volt’s.

Even if Swe­den’s share of the pie is ul­ti­mately tiny, min­ers aren’t about to leave any stone un­turned.

Scott’s other clients in­clude Berkut Min­er­als, an Aus­tralian firm ex­plor­ing an old cobalt mine, and U.K.-based Scan­di­vana­dium Ltd., which is search­ing for vana­dium, a metal that’s be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in mak­ing bat­ter­ies for com­mer­cial en­ergy stor­age.

“Look­ing at some­thing that hasn’t had a pair of eyes on it for 50 or 60 years is awe­some,” Scott said about study­ing old cores at the archive. “That’s why we’re all in this busi­ness — it’s the thrill of the chase.”

MIKAEL SJOBERG/BLOOMBERG NEWS

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