Quebec and Ontario signalling major lithium production developments
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May 30, 2023
Mehanaz Yakub

As Canada races to solidify its EV supply chain, Quebec and Ontario are vying for investments and development of their lithium sectors

The Ontario government is aiming to establish an end-to-end electric vehicle supply chain in the province. This, it says, will help position Canada as a global contender in the rapidly expanding market for EV production and battery manufacturing. Photo: Li-Metal

As Canada races to solidify its EV supply chain, Quebec and Ontario are vying for investments and development of their lithium sectors

The Ontario government is aiming to establish an end-to-end electric vehicle supply chain in the province. This, it says, will help position Canada as a global contender in the rapidly expanding market for EV production and battery manufacturing.

To date, the province has successfully attracted automakers Volkswagen and Stellantis (along with LG Energy Solutions) to establish two battery cell manufacturing plants. Additionally, Belgium-based Umicore has invested $1.5 billion in setting up a cathode active material facility near Kingston.

With these cornerstones of the supply chain in place, the Ontario government is turning its attention to manufacturers of the remaining components needed to build electric batteries in the province.

“To be able to build a battery, we now need…cathode, anode, separator, copper foil, aluminum foil and lithium hydroxide,” said Vic Fedeli, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, in a speech at Electric Autonomy’s EV & Charging Expo 2023.

“There are six companies that we need in Ontario right now.”

Developing lithium in Ontario

Out of the six battery components Fedeli named as crucial to bringing to Ontario, the favourite appears to be lithium hydroxide.

Lithium hydroxide is one of the refined forms of raw lithium material that can be used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. The other refined form is lithium carbonate.

Before making the lithium hydroxide, Ontario needs to source the raw mineral.

Currently, there are no active lithium mines in Ontario. But, Fedeli says, there are several mining companies, such as Frontier Lithium, Green Technology Metals, Lithium One MetalsAvalon Advanced MaterialsHigh Tide ResourcesRock Tech Lithium and Imagine Lithium all working on lithium mining projects in northwestern Ontario.

“We’re almost there in getting the lithium out of the ground. Then we envision things like the lithium conversion facility making lithium hydroxide that every lithium-ion battery today it’s going to need. That is all coming,” said Fedeli.

But while Ontario is just taking steps to prepare its mines for lithium production, other jurisdictions in Canada are already ramping up their lithium mining activities and selling lithium products to customers.

Quebec: Canada’s current lithium capital

Last week, Quebec-based mining company Nemaska Lithium signed an 11-year deal to supply a maximum of 13,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually to Ford to be used in the automaker’s electric car batteries.

Earlier this year, Ford said it will create a battery pack manufacturing wing at its Oakville manufacturing complex.

“The Nemaska Lithium project will be a sustainable source of lithium, supporting Ford’s ability to scale and helping us make EVs more accessible and affordable over time to millions of customers,” said Lisa Drake, Ford’s vice-president of EV Industrialization, Model e in a press release.

Nemaska says it will produce lithium ore from its Whabouchi mine in the James Bay region of northern Quebec starting in 2025. This ore will then be converted into lithium hydroxide at Nemaska’s Bécancour conversion facility when it opens the following year.

As part of the agreement deal, Ford will also be buying spodumene concentrate (a type of lithium ore) from Nemaska’s Whabouchi mine before delivery of the lithium hydroxide produced in Bécancour starts in 2026.

“This long-term agreement with a global leader in the automotive industry and in the development of electric vehicles is a tribute to the strength of Nemaska Lithium’s project and the quality of the product we will supply,” said Gervais Jacques, chairman of the board of directors of Nemaska Lithium in a press statement. “It also strengthens our position as a major player in the development of the battery industry in Québec and Canada.”

Quebec government’s economic development agency, Investissement Québec, and Livent Corp., a Philadelphia-based lithium company own Nemaska. The deal with Ford makes the automaker Nemaska’s first customers.

International interest in Quebec

Other mining companies making headway in developing lithium mining projects in Quebec this year include Vancouver-based Arbor Metals. Arbor Metals is making progress with a lithium mining project in the James Bay region of Quebec. Initial analyses of geophysics and geological datasets at Arbor’s flagship Jarnet Lithium project indicate substantial lithium mineralization in the area.

“We are excited to see major automakers recognizing the importance of securing lithium supply for their EV production. Ford’s commitment to Quebec’s lithium production reinforces our belief in the immense potential of this region,” said Mark Ferguson, CEO of Arbor in a press note. “Arbor Metals is determined to play a significant role in meeting the growing demand for lithium and supporting the global electrification efforts.”

At the start of the new year, Australia-based mining company, Allkem, through its subsidiary, Galaxy Lithium, received federal government approval for the construction of a lithium mine in the James Bay area too.

“This is an important decision for Canada. The James Bay Lithium Mine Project will produce a key ingredient of clean technology like electric vehicle batteries and solar panels,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Natural Resources in a press release.

Meanwhile, North American lithium producer Sayona Mining and Piedmont Lithium have restarted commercial spodumene concentrate production at their jointly owned North American Lithium (NAL) project in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue region at the end of March.

As part of a pair of deals signed with LG Chem and Tesla earlier this year, NAL’s minority partner Piemont will provide 200,000 metric tonnes of spodumene concentrate to LG Chem over four years (50,000 tonnes per year). Piemont will supply 125,000 metric tonnes of spodumene concentrate to Tesla starting in late 2023 until 2025.

Exploring next-generation lithium metals

Significant R&D resources in Canada are pouring into technologies that will extract, refine or recycle battery minerals more efficiently. This goes for lithium as well.

Along with finding reliable sources of raw lithium, a key component of developing next-generation lithium-ion batteries for EVs is lithium metal anodes.

These “offer substantial energy density improvements compared to conventional [lithium-ion batteries],” says Markham, Ont.-based Li-Metal, a company specializing in lithium metal and lithium metal anode technologies, in a press release.

Conventional lithium-ion battery anodes, which lack lithium metal, use graphite materials. This poses energy density and sustainability challenges. But a made-in-Canada solution may be coming. This month Li-Metal manufactured its first batch of lithium metals directly from lithium carbonate at its piloting facility in Markham.

Producing lithium metal directly from lithium carbonate offers several advantages, says Li-Metal. It eliminates the need for corrosive lithium chloride feedstock materials, prevents the production of chlorine gas associated with traditional methods, reduces environmental impact, minimizes the need for costly treatment equipment and improves cost-effectiveness.

“The ability to produce metal from carbonate is a metallurgical process breakthrough,” said Maciej Jastrzebski, co-founder and CTO of Li-Metal in a press statement.

“This is an important precursor to establishing commercial-scale metal production and we believe it is the foundation for cost-effective and more sustainable lithium metal production in North America.”

Li-Metal is continuing to run pilots to improve the quality of its lithium metal product for future commercial deployment. The company is also actively working on an engineering study for a commercial-scale lithium metal facility. The location of the lithium metal facility is not known yet, says a spokesperson for Li-Metal to Electric Autonomy.

Furthermore, Li-metal is exploring opportunities to supply lithium metal to both the next-generation battery industry and traditional lithium metal markets.

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