Vale Canada’s Totten Mine in Sudbury, Ont., will supply nickel to its proposed Bécancour plant by 2026. Photo: Vale Canada and UK/Facebook

Once Vale’s proposed nickel processing plant in Bécancour, Que., is completed by 2026, the mining giant will supply General Motors with 25,000 metric tonnes of nickel annually

General Motors (GM) has once again underscored Canada’s growing potential in the North American EV battery supply chain by signing a deal with Vale Canada, a subsidiary of Brazilian mining giant Vale, to secure a supply of battery-grade nickel sulphate from Vale’s proposed plant at Bécancour, Que.

Nickel sulphate is a chemical substance needed to make pre-cathode active materials for nickel-based lithium-ion batteries. As part of the GM-Vale nickel deal, Vale will supply GM with the equivalent of 25,000 metric tonnes per year of contained nickel — enough to supply 350,000 EVs annually — to be used in building GM’s Ultium battery cathodes. The Ultium platform powers all of the automaker’s newest EVs and is the foundation for all of its EVs going forward.

“This new agreement with Vale reinforces GM’s leadership in building a secure and sustainable North America EV supply chain and will provide GM with significant supply of high-grade nickel sulphate from a low-carbon source,” said Doug Parks, GM’s executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain in a press statement.

By 2025, GM says it will have the capacity to manufacture one million EVs in North America, and that it has “signed multiple binding agreements” with suppliers of battery components to do so. In March, the automaker joined forces with Posco Chemicals, a company based in South Korea, to construct a $500-million cathode active material (CAM) plant in the same Bécancour region.

Under the new deal, GM and Vale will also collaborate on advancing technology development and commercialization pathways for recycling metals.

Sourcing nickel from Canada

Vale says the nickel sulphate will be available for delivery to GM by late 2026. The materials will be mined from Vale’s operations in Sudbury, Ont., Voisey’s Bay, N.L. and Thompson, Man.

The nickel sourced in Canada will “help support EV eligibility for consumer incentives under the new clean energy tax credits in the U.S.,” added Parks.

According to the newly adopted U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, EV batteries must be assembled or manufactured in North America using components from the continent in order to qualify for federal tax credits of up to $3,750 per vehicle.

The United Steelworkers union (USW), which represents 225,000 members in Canada, says it’s “thrilled” about the GM and Vale deal. Vale employs almost 5,000 USW members in Canada. The Sudbury USW Local 6500 alone has 2,7000 members that mine, mill and smelt nickel at Vale’s operations. The members also mine for copper, cobalt, precious metals, gold and silver.

“[The deal] protects good local union jobs as well as creating new jobs at the same time. I am confident that our members are up to the challenge and will deliver,” said Myles Sullivan, director of USW District 6 in Ontario and Atlantic Canada in a press statement.

Advancing “proposed” nickel operations

After the nickel is mined, it will be sent to Vale’s proposed nickel plant in Bécancour. Construction of the plant has yet to begin, but in June Vale concluded a pre-feasibility study for the project. It found that it would have an estimated annual capacity to process 25,000 tonnes of contained nickel into nickel sulphate.

The mining company said in a press release that “the project’s final investment decision and schedule is contingent on a range of factors including downstream battery supply chain integration and requirements, as well as board and regulatory approvals.​” A spokesperson for Vale confirmed in an email to Electric Autonomy Canada that deliveries will “commence in H2 2026, pending customary approvals.”

“The proposed nickel sulphate project would utilize high purity, low-carbon nickel from our Canadian refineries and is a natural extension for the business, offering diversified sales and a fast entry and anchor point into the North American electric vehicle market.,” said Deshnee Naidoo, executive vice-president of Vale Base Metals in a press note. “We look forward to continuing engagements with the governments of Canada and Quebec on this strategic critical mineral project.”

The agreement to provide GM with battery component materials further confirms that efforts to advance the proposed nickel plant in Bécancour by Vale are progressing and receiving backing from both the federal and provincial governments

“The signing of this agreement confirms that the biggest players in the industry want to invest here and enter our supply chain,” said Pierre Fitzgibbon, Quebec’s Minister of Economy, Innovation and Energy in a press release. “We have the resources and the expertise to produce the cleanest battery in the world, and this news will certainly contribute to that.”

Vale has existing deals to supply nickel to Tesla, Ford and Sweden-based Northvolt.

Projects underway at Bécancour

In the last year, the town of Bécancour has become a critical region for manufacturing materials required for batteries and spurring the EV revolution in Canada.

Bécancour, which is located near Trois Rivières, with a deep water port off the St. Lawrence River, is seen as one of the most reliable and energy-secure points in Canada since it intersects with three hydroelectric networks. Quebec also produces some of the lowest-priced, low-carbon electricity in the country, making the area attractive to manufacturers and miners.

While Vale Canada looks to construct a plant for nickel sulphate, the likes of GM and Posco and BASF are setting up shop to produce cathode active materials and battery metals recycling plants.

This summer, it was announced through a press release that U.S.-based automaker Ford will jointly invest in establishing a cathode active material (CAM) production facility in North America, with South Korean battery cell manufacturers SK On Co. and EV battery material producer EcoPro BM Co.

The location of the plant is still in question but reports surfaced at the end of October that the US$700-million venture will be in Bécancour. Lobbyist registries for the federal and provincial governments also show that EcoPro BM is seeking financial assistance to help build a CAM plant in Quebec.

The deal is expected to be confirmed before the end of the year, while construction of the plant will commence during the second half of 2023. The nickel produced at the future plant will be supplied to BlueOval SK, a battery production plant established through a  joint venture between SK On and Ford in Tennessee and Kentucky.

“It’s become even more clear that Canada can be the supplier of choice for the electric cars of the future,” said François-Philippe Champagne, federal minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in the GM-Vale nickel deal press release. “By leveraging Canadian critical minerals, we will see more jobs for Canadians, a growing economy and a greener and cleaner future for everyone.”

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