The Battery Material Supply Chain

Shifting power dynamics

Battery size, charging times, and power capacity remain key hurdles to overcome in order for companies to fully embrace electrification; working in tandem with other renewable sources. The three main types of lithium-ion batteries today are lithium ferrophosphate (LFP), lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide (NCA), and lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC), which is what Tesla has used historically. “NMC batteries are most popular because they have the highest gravimetric and volumetric energy density. So you can pack a bigger punch for less weight and less volume,” said Michael Insulan, vice president, commercial, Electra Battery Materials.

Lithium

Most global lithium production emerges from Australia, with the rest being dominated by South America and China. The majority is then shipped to China to be processed and transformed into chemicals. Frontier Lithium currently hold the largest land position in Electric Avenue and aims to become a manufacturer of battery-grade lithium hydroxide for EV supply chains in North America, and possibly Europe. With support from the Ontario government, Frontier Lithium is evaluating whether to use a sulphate or alkaline process. “Of importance to us is the ability to produce a high quality, consistent lithium chemical sustainably, which means we can do so economically and in a manner that minimizes environmental impacts,” said Trevor Walker, president and CEO, Frontier Lithium.

Toronto-based ION Energy has been exploring at its flagship Baavhai Uul lithium project in Mongolia, located close to the Chinese border. Ali Haji, ION’s CEO, spoke of the dynamics of global lithium demand today, with China accounting for 75% of the world’s battery giga-factories. Meanwhile, Chinese automotive manufacturers are selling more EVs per capita than anywhere else in the world. “Our macro view is that we will see continued and significant lithium demand from the Chinese market in the near-term, which will increase substantially in the mid- to long-term as the EV movement gathers pace.”

“Some institutions are playing a bit of smoke and mirrors — there are currently hedge funds shorting big emitters, like big oil companies, and classifying that as a carbon credit to claim that their fund is carbon neutral! We should be reducing the amount of energy we are using and becoming more efficient with the resources that we have.”

Zimi Meka, Co-founder & CEO, Ausenco

Nickel and Cobalt

Demand for transition metals will exponentially rise. Although lower cathode percentages are required per battery kWh given evolving chemistries, larger vehicles, longer ranges and higher EV penetration rates translate into a projected CAGR for cobalt in the battery segment of 19% through 2030. “LFPs have no cobalt and have gained popularity in Asia, but they are not likely to be widely adopted in the West, where consumers value longer range options relative to Chinese buyers. Nickel and cobalt bearing cathodes are thus projected to make up 80% of the EV market by 2030”, said Trent Mell, president and CEO of Electra Battery Materials.

Battery chemistry is the key determinant regarding battery density. As formulas progress, nickel is starting to play a more prominent role in the manufacturing of batteries, with as much as 80% of mass cathodes being made up by the metal. “About 70% of the world's nickel production goes into stainless steel. With the forecasted growth for EVs by the end of 2030, the amount of nickel needed to meet demand hovers around 50 to 60% over current production,” said Grant Mourre, CEO, SPC Nickel Corp.

Tesla is now expected to be the first to use LG’s NCMA battery cells, which contain a 90% nickel composition. In order to use nickel for EV battery purposes, the metal needs to be Class one nickel, with a 99.98% purity level. Under 40% of nickel production stems from sulphide deposits, like the ones in Sudbury, which are the key source of Class one nickel. Class two nickel has too many impurities for EV batteries and tends to be used for stainless steel.

“If the industry pushes for more high-pressure, acid-leaching, as we see in Indonesia, with the current energy mix in that country, that could have a bigger CO2 footprint. However, there are regions in Canada or Europe where you can use clean hydro energy for these processes,” said Robert Pell, founder and CEO of Minviro.

The most high-profile of the nickel-focused juniors active in Ontario, Canada Nickel Company (CNC) is currently undertaking the engineering and feasibility study of the Crawford project toward becoming the world’s first NetZero nickel mining operation.

CNC’s chairman and CEO, Mark Selby, explained how the PEA on the company’s Crawford project, as well as 13 acquisitions in the region, offer the potential to scale mining operations in the future. “We believe this will allow Canada Nickel to establish a scalable, multi-deposit nickel camp with the potential to deliver NetZero nickel, cobalt and iron required for the next generation of battery metals supply.”

Indonesia produces the largest volume of nickel globally. Mostly due to Chinese investment, the country is on track to launch several new high-pressure, acid-leach nickel projects with a combined capacity of nearly 450,000 mt/y of nickel. Macquarie predicts that Indonesian nickel production will rise from 28% to about 60% of global production by 2028. Investors and industry leaders will hold the burden of choice - to determine how much value they place on carbon footprint. “In the end, it will be the market that dictates how important is the carbon footprint of the different products,” added Pell.

With car manufacturers getting involved in mining, and billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates investing in mining exploration for critical electric vehicle metals and minerals, the direction the world is taking is clear. The number of investors and companies who decide to enter the mining sphere has a long way to go, and we can certainly expect to see an investor awakening, with interesting surprises moving forward.

Image courtesy of Electra Battery Materials