From Indigenous relations to sourcing raw materials to waste reduction to value-added manufacturing, experts at Sudbury’s marquee event were unanimous that realizing Canada’s enormous EV battery supply chain potential hinges on further cooperation and commitment from all participants in the sector
The City of Sudbury’s Mines to Mobility battery supply chain conference was one of the first large-scale gatherings of clean mobility industry stakeholders in Canada since COVID-19 lockdowns began.
Talks about collaborations, challenges and best practices in the industry were long overdue and two key themes emerged from the roughly dozen presentations and panels over the two-day event.
The first is that the industry has used the two years during COVID well and has grown, in some cases and areas, at an unprecedented rate. The second is that Canada is still not where it needs to be.
“The global race is on,” said Julie Dabrusin, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources in her keynote speech to open the conference. “As the world makes strides to electrify its transportation sectors, Canada has all the right ingredients to be at the forefront of the global battery boom.”
With the tone of the conference set, speakers from across the industry made their way on and off the Sudbury stage to discuss what their slice of the EV battery supply chain is doing to capitalize on the transition to zero-emission mobility.
Breaking down silos
The Sudbury conference brought together experts representing the spectrum of the Canadian EV battery supply chain and reinforced an attitude of “togetherness” across the clean mobility sector.
Through the different experiences, perspectives and approaches there was a common concern: will Canada be able to scale quickly enough to meet the demand of tomorrow and will the country take steps in order to realize the full economic benefits of a national EV battery supply chain?
“This event was a wake up call on this transition to battery electric economy, locally and beyond,” says Scott Rennie, business development officer at the City of Greater Sudbury and Mines to Mobility conference organizer. “[One] success was the conversation on inspiring Indigenous partnerships — why success is dependent on this and the need for a lot more discussion on the ‘how’ of this.”
Among the Sudbury conference attendees were representatives from national EV battery supply chain alliance, Accelerate; members of Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) and Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network (OVIN); engineering firms; mining companies including Vale and Glencore; Indigenous leaders; and equipment manufacturers. Most of the speakers made similar calls for cross-sector unity and knowledge sharing.
“Everyone I talked to at the conference have been to mining events or they’d been to auto sector events. Few had been to one that brought both sectors together,” said Stephen Gravel, manager at the Centre for Smart Mining at Cambrian College and conference chair.
“Very critically, some people I talked to stressed the need for follow up and follow through to maintain the incredible momentum generated. This conference has invigorated the region to take a leadership role here and the organizers of this conference have a unique perch from which to bring the chess pieces together.
Indigenous panel indicates uncertainty remains
Indigenous leaders who gathered to discuss their respective communities’ perspectives and concerns with the furor around securing and mining battery materials were a critical presence at the conference. Their participation was as part of a panel entitled: “Inspiring Inclusive Partnerships for the Clean and Sustainable Mining of Green Metals in Northern Ontario.”
One of the key take aways from the discussion is that Sudbury-area First Nation leaders are still unclear about what role their communities will play in the supply chain because the language around “partnerships” is vague. To that end, the panelists wondered, will the partnerships be truly equal?
“I want to be partners, sitting at the table with decision makers,” said Gimaa Craig Nootchtai of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, situated 20 minutes outside of Sudbury. “We’re not a challenge, we’re partners…[but] the government is setting targets without meaningful consultation with 600+ communities.”
The impression of not always being viewed or treated as equal partners by the government or the private mining companies looking to develop prospective mineral deposits — often that occur on or in close proximity to Indigenous lands — was echoed by all the panelists.
“We have a great relationship with Glencore and Vale and we have our challenges,” said Anthony Laforge, director of lands and resources for Wahnapitae First Nation, nearly an hour north of Sudbury. “We want to be engaged in meaningful partnerships and opportunities.”
Another universal concern voiced by the Indigenous leaders was the care and consideration that mining companies would give to the land, understanding that a mine lives long after it has been decommissioned and the environmental impacts are felt for generations to come.
Gimaa Alan Ozawanimke of the Sagamok Anishnawbek, just outside of Massey, Ont., said a river runs alongside his community. Despite it being a traditional source of food for his community, he has “never eaten a fish from that river in my life” because of the intense upstream pollution that has contaminated the water and wildlife.
Ozawanimke said he is “encouraged” by the changing attitudes of companies and governments today with respect to environmental considerations, but the role of Indigenous knowledge holders needs to be better understood and more valued in partnership agreements.
“Since 1867 [when the Treaties were signed] the relationship has been one-sided. [The Indigenous] approach is not for anyone to take advantage of anyone else. It’s for all to benefit equally…we have an obligation to Mother Earth.”
Scaling cutting-edge mine waste technology
One vein of research into mitigating environmental fallout from intensive mineral mining that is poised to break into the market came from Dr. Nadia Mykytczuk, CEO of Mirarco, a not-for-profit applied research firm in North America.
Mykytczuk has been studying and developing a new-for-Canada way of dealing with mine waste: bioleaching. The process uses microbes to further extract mine materials from waste, which is already sitting in tailings ponds “at the surface” and are a long-term source of contamination and toxicity.
The potential economic and resource-recovery returns are as striking as the environmental benefits. Bioleaching could be a $10-billion industry in Canada just in nickel recovery alone, estimated Mykytczuk. On top of that, she said there’s $10 billion in Canada’s gold mine waste and $2.4 trillion in copper found in mine waste globally. Bioleaching could solve a sizeable and costly liability on the government’s hands, which is the maintenance of the roughly 10,000 decommissioned mines across the country.
“It recovers more minerals for sale, and renders wastes to be less reactive,” which stabilizes the environment,” said Mykytczuk during her presentation to the room, which included members of the Glencore and Vale mining companies.
The next step for Mykytczuk is to raise $17 million in funding to establish a dedicated research centre and lab for bioleaching with the aim of scaling the technology for commercial use.
A generational opportunity
Sudbury’s Mines to Mobility conference marked a significant meeting in the evolution of Canada’s EV battery supply chain. With interest from across the country what was a clear takeaway from the event was the level of interdependency between the various components of the supply chain.
Sectors that never needed to understand the inner workings of another field, let alone communicate directly with them, now find themselves urgently needing those connections and the events that foster networking.
With a strong demand for such opportunities, Sudbury city officials hope the Mines to Mobility supply chain conference will be a recurring event that helps all stakeholders to leverage a generational opportunity and especially those willing to invest in the nickel belt.
“As the world shifts to low-carbon transportation models, the future has never looked better for those who mine and process the riches buried in the Sudbury Basin and other greenstone belts in this region,” said Dabrusin.
“Even the most conservative estimates predict a multi-trillion dollar global market opportunity that Canada cannot afford to ignore.”
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