What are some of the challenges of designing mines that feed the battery material supply chain?
There are two elements to consider. First you must plan the fundamental design of the process, such as the science behind converting the mineral into a finished product. This is the process engineering side of things that you need to master and control, and SNC-Lavalin has deep expertise in that realm to help our customers find solutions. The second big part is the project delivery piece.
The SNC-Lavalin way of integrating those two components gives our customers predictability of outcome. Our approach is to constantly evaluate where we are, what challenges are present, and how to mitigate potential problems. This means that when we arrive at the endpoint, our clients have predictability of the outcome.
What are the keys to engineering battery material projects in North America that are capable of becoming a viable alternative to Chinese supply?
Designing more cost-efficient projects is only one piece of the solution. You need to focus on the overall sustainability of the project and look at it from a holistic point of view. As the world is moving towards greener technologies and implementation of electric vehicles, our society is changing. People are going to want to buy vehicles that are built with lithium and aluminum made in a sustainable manner. At SNC-Lavalin we want to be part of that, and this is what differentiates the Québec market from China and many other competitors around the world. The cost structure of a Chinese project is very different. The positioning of Québec’s energy generation through hydroelectric facilities, clean deposits, and engineering companies, such as ours, that look at sustainable development as the only way to deliver a project are key differentiators for Québec. This means the choice of technology, equipment, water, emissions, consumption of power, and clean energy choices are all considered when we design projects. Québec has all the ingredients to make that successful.
To what extent have you seen ESG considerations become a higher priority for mining clients in recent years?
Cost and schedule will always be important, because ultimately you are building a facility that must give investors a return on capital. However, without ESG considerations these mines are not going to get built. We see this conversation happening in spades with our customers. An important driver of this trend is that governmental funds, such as Investissement Québec and CDPQ, insist that the sustainability piece is fundamental. It is also fundamental in our work, because if we do not design projects incorporating those elements, it does not matter how cost efficient the project is, it will not have the social license to operate.
What are the biggest changes you have observed regarding market conditions over the past two years?
In 2019, there were very few projects that were seriously being considered for implementation. Therefore, most of the business revolved around doing smaller studies with long lead times before turning into real projects. In 2021, the number of studies has increased significantly in terms of clients wanting to understand how to implement their project, but more importantly, we see many more projects coming to fruition and actually getting done. With that comes significant human resource challenges. A feasibility study requires 10 to 20 engineers. Whereas, to do an implementation project you need 150 people. It is an order of magnitude difference, and now in 2021, we are seeing at least half a dozen opportunities of real projects that are going to get built. Consequently, demand for SNC-Lavalin’s services is much greater. Our biggest challenge lies in being able to attract and retain talent. The Québec market has been so busy over the last few years building infrastructure projects that there is a under supply of talented folks because they are busy working on other projects. This challenge is being addressed head-on by SNC-Lavalin through career development programs, recruiting talent from our universities and giving our people exciting opportunities to develop their skills on challenging projects.