Indigenous group says it sees plenty of opportunity in battery minerals recycling, with no company yet to emerge as a “dominant” player
An Indigenous business group is looking to become a major player in Ontario’s booming critical minerals and EV battery sector.
Earlier this month, the Three Fires Group, an economic development business that serves members of the Anishinabek Nation, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Toronto-based Electra Battery Materials Corp., an emerging battery minerals refiner and processor, to form a joint venture focused on recycling lithium-ion battery waste.
Specifically, the agreement said Electra’s black mass processing capabilities, currently in late-stage, production-scale trials, would underpin the partnership’s efforts to source high-value elements such as nickel, cobalt, and graphite.
Reggie George, executive director of special projects and partnerships at the Three Fires Group, said in an interview with Electric Autonomy that the Indigenous collective reached out to Electra roughly seven months ago to gauge the possibility of working together.
Leaders of the Three Fires Group, he says, see economic potential in getting involved in battery recycling projects in their traditional territory, which they have called home for thousands of years.
“Being a First Nations-owned organization, and batteries being a relatively new thing, we view First Nations in the traditional sense: as stewards of the land,” George said.
“We saw the opportunity of recycling batteries as an untapped market so far.”
He added that the Three Fires Group had been looking to enter the battery supply chain market, and wanted to become players in the recycling space as big battery manufacturers like Volkswagen and LG Energy Solution-Stellantis set up shop in southwestern Ontario.
They were also impressed by Electra’s existing battery recycling facility north of Toronto, where those late-stage trials are underway, and thought they could help the company source materials in the battery-rich southern part of the province.
“Battery plants are coming in and all the reject stock is going to be sent to a recycler. Electra needed somebody [in southwestern Ontario] to act as a potential off-taker,” George says.
As part of the MOU, Electra and the Three Fires Group agreed to secure a net-zero facility that will be able to shred and convert lithium-ion batteries to produce black mass material.
Multiple site possibilities
George wouldn’t confirm where the net-zero facility will be located. But he says that there are multiple industrial areas in southwestern Ontario that the Three Fires Group and Electra are eyeing for their recycling ambitions.
“We believe there’s pretty significant opportunity when it comes to creating net-zero industrial parks to host facilities like a grinding facility in southwestern Ontario,” George said. “We are actively pursuing a couple opportunities on that front: at the municipal level and business level.”
The Three Fires Group is looking at two main sources to find raw materials for recycling: battery materials waste from energy storage facilities and end-of-life EV batteries.
“Once [the batteries] get to a certain point, it becomes annoying to have to drive around in a vehicle that’s only at 80 per cent battery life when it should be at 100 per cent,” George says.
“I think that’ll be a reliable and realistic secondary source.”
Eyeing an opportunity
As the EV battery recycling industry is in its nascent stage, the overall supply of recycle-ready batteries is scarce.
And while some Canadian companies have already launched their recycling businesses, like Li-Cycle, which has built several battery-waste handling facilities and is now building a black mass processing plant in Rochester, N.Y., that will have a 35,000-tonne capacity, George doesn’t believe that any one company has established itself as the dominant recycler in the country.
So, he sees the present as a ripe opportunity to launch a new venture.
“Everybody has their own secret sauce, everyone’s in different stages of deployment, realistically the industry is infant,” George says. “If I look at all the battery recyclers, there’s nobody I would point to and be like, ‘There’s the one.’”
There is no official timeframe for when the MOU will evolve into a concrete plan, or an announcement for a new facility.
Reduce pressure in the north
Also of note, while George hopes that battery recycling will be an economic boon to the First Nations they represent, he is also looking to reduce the pressure to mine critical battery minerals on Indigenous lands in northern Ontario.
In February, leaders of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Wapekeka, Neskantaga, and Asubpeechoseewagong Anishinabek First Nations formed an alliance to blunt the onrush of visitors to their territory looking for minerals.
“Other nations, that we’re not representing, are dealing with problems of critical minerals right now,” George said.
“If we can do our part, for our brothers up there, and take weight off the need for these critical minerals, that is crucial.”