Exclusive: “The stars have aligned” for Canada as a lithium supplier, says Livent chief strategy officer Sarah Maryssael
Share Article
Read More
May 30, 2023
Brian Banks

Last week’s deal between Ford and Quebec’s Nemaska Lithium was a Canadian coming out of sorts for Nemaska’s co-owner Livent. Electric Autonomy spoke to Sarah Maryssael, Livent’s Montreal-based chief strategy officer, to learn more about the lithium miner’s plans for this market

Rendering of Nemaska Lithium’s planned Bécancour lithium hydroxide processing facility, due to come online when Whabouchi mine lithium production is underway. Photo: Nemaska Lithium

Last week’s deal between Ford and Quebec’s Nemaska Lithium was a Canadian coming out of sorts for Nemaska’s co-owner, Livent. Electric Autonomy spoke to Sarah Maryssael, Livent’s Montreal-based chief strategy officer, about the lithium miner’s goals for this market

Capital investments are front and centre as Canada pushes to be a bigger player in the global EV and energy storage battery supply chain. But people moves count, too.

A recent case in point: Sarah Maryssael, chief strategy officer at Livent Corp.

Livent is a major international lithium miner with headquarters in the U.S. Its holdings include 50 per cent of Nemaska Lithium in Quebec — which last week announced an agreement to supply Ford Motor Co. with lithium ore and lithium hydroxide from a future plant in Bécancour, Que., starting in 2025.

Two weeks before the Ford announcement, Maryssael moved from Silicon Valley to Montreal. Announcing the move on LinkedIn, she wrote: “We will miss you California but excited to help Livent and Nemaska Lithium grow the next global battery supply chain hub in Québec.”

From Tesla to Livent

Sarah Maryssael Headshot
Sarah Maryssael, chief strategy officer at Livent, moved to Montreal in early May. Photo: Livent.

Maryssael may not be a household name. But she is a key player in this sector. Prior to joining Livent last October, she led Tesla’s strategic sourcing of lithium and other battery metals for its global battery supply chain. Maryssael also had a lead role in scaling Tesla’s cathode roadmap. (Tesla, as well as GM and BMW, are existing Livent customers.)

At Livent, Maryssael is responsible for leading efforts to grow the business globally as well as Livent’s strategy and commercial operations in North America. She is also a director on Nemaska’s board of directors. That she’s doing it all from a base in Canada underscores this market’s current significance to Livent.

Electric Autonomy met on video last week with Maryssael to learn more about why Livent is targeting Canada for lithium growth opportunities, her role at the company and the significance of signing Ford as Nemaska’s first customer. (Note: Our discussion did not include the recently announced proposed merger between Livent and Australian lithium producer Allkem Ltd., as neither company is making any statements at this time.)

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Electric Autonomy: Last fall, shortly after you joined Livent, CEO Paul Graves described Canada as “a core part of our expansion capacity.” What are you looking at that makes Canada a growth opportunity?

Sarah Maryssael: We see Canada as a great jurisdiction for bringing on more domestic lithium supply and reducing dependence on [current] large producing countries. Canada has the potential to become a new lithium hub, especially for the Americas, with the announcement of the IRA [U.S. Inflation Reduction Act], which has really upended the way that a lot of the battery producers and OEM producers think about how they design their supply chains. We think the stars have aligned to put Canada in a really strong position to benefit from the growth of the energy transition and the growth of the battery supply chain.

Electric Autonomy: Does Canada have enough lithium to make that happen?

Sarah Maryssael: If you look at Australia as maybe a jurisdiction several years ahead of Canada, one of the reasons is that they’ve done more exploration in lithium. But I think that is changing. We’ve seen some very encouraging announcements from a number of developers in Quebec. The drilling results they’ve announced would certainly indicate that there is potential for some of these very large, even mega-large, lithium projects in Canada.

Electric Autonomy: Is the opportunity strictly in Quebec, or is it more widespread?

Sarah Maryssael: Again, it comes down to exploration. I think there’s been more exploration done in Quebec [and] more resources focused on development in Quebec. But having said that, I think we’re seeing some promising opportunities in Ontario, especially in the hard rock. There’s [also] projects in the geothermal brines in Alberta. For Livent’s purpose, hard rock in Quebec is what we’ve been focused on. But we’re certainly seeing that this could be across the board throughout Canada. [Editor’s note: See “Quebec and Ontario signalling major lithium production developments.”]

Electric Autonomy: Is Livent out in the field prospecting or are you more of an acquirer of projects?

Sarah Maryssael: That is part of the mandate that I have. Part of my new role is to define what is that playbook. What’s exciting about being in an industry like lithium is there’s not so much a legacy of how things have been done before.

image of Whabouchi mine
Nemaska Lithium’s Whabouchi lithium mine in central Quebec, where production is scheduled to begin in 2025. Photo: Nemaska Lithium

Electric Autonomy: What sort of factors are you considering?

Sarah Maryssael: It’s really about responding to a very new end-user need, which is the energy transition, electric vehicles, energy storage. Maybe acquisitions make sense. Partnerships could make sense. We really have the opportunity to look at all different types of structures.

As well, it’s important to note that this doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s not about just building a mine and a chemicals plant. This all needs to be done as part of an entire battery ecosystem growing and developing at the same time. So it’s also about being in lockstep with what is happening with the downstream. What are automakers doing? What are battery makers doing? What do OEMs need and how do we structure these deals to respond best to their needs?

Electric Autonomy: What are some of the challenges in bringing those different groups together?

Sarah Maryssael: There’s a bit of a disconnect still between raw material producers and downstream customers. A miner or a producer of raw materials thinks about time horizons in the 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. That is the time you operate a mine. An OEM or a battery producer, when you think about what it takes to build a car plant, it’s in the order of two, three, maybe five years in the time horizon. So they’re looking at much, much shorter time horizons, different type of investments profile.

Electric Autonomy: Does your former role at Tesla help in this respect? How are you applying that experience?

Sarah Maryssael: I help to really bridge those two ends of the value chain and find ways in which we develop long-term partnerships that are flexible for both the upstream and the downstream, but also allow both sides to grow. So I consider myself as a bit of as a mediator between the two, being able to speak the languages on both sides and hopefully find pathways which ultimately is about accelerating the availability of responsible, sustainable lithium.

Electric Autonomy: The Ford-Nemaska deal was one of three lithium sourcing deals announced simultaneously by Ford. Nemaska is aiming to have its mine in production by 2025. It also wants to complete construction of a plant in Bécancour to convert spodumene concentrate from the mine into lithium hydroxide around the same time. Ford is to receive 13,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year for 11 years. What is this deal’s significance for Nemaska?

Sarah Maryssael: This deal is really a vote of confidence from a company like Ford for a project like Nemaska. I think it speaks a lot to the quality of the project, the quality of the resource, the quality of the team. It also speaks, I think, to the jurisdiction. All this is obviously very important for Ford. If you look at the other announcements they made, it was clear that working with established producers was focal to their strategy, relying on producers that have experience and have a global presence. So, not only is it stamp of approval for Nemaska as a project, but it also shows that the capability that we as Livent can bring to support a project for a brand name like Ford.

Electric Autonomy: Nemaska estimates the Bécancour plant production capacity will be about 35,000 metric tons. So there’s more output for other customers?

Sarah Maryssael: Yes.

Electric Autonomy: But every deal could have a different structure? Can you elaborate on those possibilities?

Sarah Maryssael: Different OEMs have very different thought processes. So it’s really about tailoring this to: Are they more North America focused? Are they globally focused? Are they looking to try and do this themselves, or are they relying on partners to do this? How far upstream do they want to go? Where do they want to control? Do they want to leave the battery maker to control the raw material decisions? Do they want to be more active in the raw material decisions?

As a raw material producer like Livent, you want to be part of that journey, helping them figure out what the answers to these questions are. These partnerships start months, sometimes years, before the contract’s been signed. There is a process of figuring out together what do they want, what are they open to, what makes sense for their supply chain.

Electric Autonomy: You also said Livent’s focus isn’t solely EV batteries, but the energy transition more generally. How so?

Sarah Maryssael: Obviously, when you get deals with Ford and BMW and GM, we know that gets a lot of interest. But this is really about us supporting Nemaska, supporting the entire energy transition. EVs is one element of it. But, you know, energy storage, we see a lot of opportunity there as well. I think that’s a segment not talked about as much as the EVs, but could potentially be as big.

View Comments
You May Also Like