Canadian refinery aims high with goal to build “battery park” in Ontario
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Jul 20, 2021
Emma Jarratt

First Cobalt, which claims it is on track to be North America’s only battery-grade cobalt refiner, has disclosed long-term plans to produce nickel sulfate in a bid to establish a “battery park” around its flagship factory

First Cobalt, which claims it is on track to be North America’s only battery-grade cobalt refiner, has disclosed long-term plans to produce nickel sulfate in a bid to establish a “battery park” around its flagship factory

The town of Cobalt was once a fixture in Ontario mining. Today, with the worldwide acceleration of battery electric vehicle adoption, it has regained new prominence. In just over a year, First Cobalt, a Toronto-based cobalt exploration and refining company, will reopen the town’s long-shuttered cobalt refinery. And now comes news that its plans don’t stop there.

First Cobalt said in press release issued last week that it is in “preliminary talks” with undisclosed government officials to create a “battery park” — inspired by the Harjavalta Industrial Park in Finland — and become a key part of Canada’s battery supply chain.

In the context of establishing a North American battery supply chain, having refineries to produce battery-grade materials is a critical component. First Cobalt’s “battery park” concept, as outlined in its release, would turn the site into an “integrated refining operation” capable of processing nickel and black mass from spent lithium-ion batteries, as well as cobalt.

“An integrated refining operation will help attract a precursor manufacturer to establish operations on site,” said the release.

The state of cobalt

The bulk of the July announcement was an update on First Cobalt’s progress on its coming cobalt refinery, which it says will be North America’s only battery-grade cobalt refinery and the second-largest cobalt refinery outside of China. It remains on track to open in late 2022.

“This is the first major battery-grade cobalt sulfate refinery to be built outside China in over 20 years, so this is not only an exciting project for us but also for the Western battery supply chain,” said First Cobalt’s president and CEO, Trent Mell.

“We are witnessing stronger interest in offtake contracts as the battery supply chain shifts its focus from Europe to new investments in North America.”

Currently 80 per cent of the world’s battery-grade cobalt comes from China. First Cobalt announced its plans to re-open their refinery in May 2020. Several months later, the provincial and federal governments stepped in with a deal to provide $10 million in a combined grant and interest-free loan for the project.

With updates to the existing First Cobalt facility estimated to boost capacity from 12 to 55 tonnes per day of cobalt hydroxide feed for a 25,000 tonne annual yield, the company is looking to capture a significant chunk of the global market.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time, according to Mell. “Cobalt prices are up more than 20% over the past four weeks,” he said.

The First Cobalt refinery will get feedstock of cobalt hydroxide from the Democratic Republic of Congo in a joint supply agreement with Glencore and China Molybdenum Co. The first shipment is expected to arrive in October 2022.

Battery park boon

If landing North America’s only battery-grade cobalt refinery isn’t enough of a feather in the country’s cap, having that same factory serve as a linchpin for a larger battery park by adding nickel sulfate refining capabilities seems a tidy bow to put on the operation.

As noted, First Cobalt’s release touts the potential of an integrated refining operation attracting a precursor manufacturer to establish operations on site.

“Precursor manufacturing is the final step in chemical processing prior to the battery being mechanically fitted within a cathode and anode casing for electric vehicles,” it said. “The mutual advantages for an integrated approach include lower operating costs, lower logistics costs and a smaller environmental footprint.”

It is unclear how much interest there is from either level of government in providing additional for support for First Cobalt’s battery park vision.

“Being located in Canada’s largest mining and mineral processing corridor has allowed us to build a strong project team, most of whom are local and will remain with First Cobalt through commissioning and into operations,” said vice-president of project development, Mark Trevisiol.

The town of Cobalt is located about 150 kilometres north of North Bay, near the Ontario-Quebec border.

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