Evolution of Electra Battery Materials
First Cobalt's new name reflects larger battery park vision Metal Tech News – November 10, 2021
Last updated 11/9/2021 at 4:39pm
The ambitious 2035 target for a complete transition to electric vehicle sales set by most global automakers hinges on establishing reliable and responsible supply chains for the batteries that will power this envisioned electric mobility future. To help meet the burgeoning EV sector's battery material needs, First Cobalt Corp. is moving forward with an integrated battery refining, recycling, and manufacturing park in Ontario.
"We see serious strains in the automotive supply chain and we are still in the early innings of EV adoption," said First Cobalt President and CEO Trent Mell. "Beneath the surface are several other factors that are of concern, including carbon emissions associated with the current supply chain, resource nationalism, geopolitics and a race to secure raw material to power the vehicles of tomorrow."
Already helping to alleviate these concerns with upgrades and expansions to an existing refinery in Ontario that would offer a significant supply of battery-grade cobalt when it is brought back online, First Cobalt is now moving forward with its vision to establish a battery park that would also produce battery-grade nickel, recycle spent lithium-ion batteries, and manufacture the advanced cathode and anode materials for lithium-ion batteries.
To reflect the much larger vision of establishing a centralized park in North America that includes multiple links in the lithium-ion battery materials supply chain, First Cobalt is changing its name to Electra Battery Materials Corp.
"With the continent's rich mineral endowment, the rationale for supplying battery materials through Asia into a growing U.S. EV market is not sustainable," said Mell. "Electra will act as a bridge between North American electric vehicles and a North American source of primary and recycled material, providing a low-carbon solution for zero-emission vehicles."
The Electra evolution
Since its founding in 2017, First Cobalt has swiftly evolved from a mineral exploration company focused on projects that could deliver new supplies of cobalt mined in Ontario and Idaho into the front end of lithium-ion battery supply chains, to a potentially critical lynchpin to the success of the North American EV sector.
This meteoric rise to Electra Battery Materials is centered upon the 2017 acquisition of the Yukon cobalt refinery, a fully permitted processing facility in Ontario that operated from 1996 until 2015.
Over the ensuing four years, the company has steadily been advancing this renamed First Cobalt refinery into a facility that is capable of producing 25,000 metric tons of battery-grade cobalt sulfate per year, which will account for more than 25% of the battery-grade cobalt produced outside of China.
With this rail-accessible refinery situated less than 400 miles away from Great Lakes manufacturing towns such as Detroit and Buffalo on pace to begin delivering cobalt by the end of 2022, First Cobalt has garnered strong interest from battery and automotive manufacturers seeking a secure and sustainable supply of this oft controversial battery metal.
The same companies, however, are also clamoring for battery-grade nickel-sulfate and other inputs into the lithium-ion battery supply chain.
Seeing an opportunity to help fill this demand, First Cobalt began to investigate the potential of developing an integrated battery park around its refinery that also produces battery-grade nickel sulfate, as well as lithium, graphite, and other battery materials from recycled lithium-ion batteries.
Modeled after eco-parks in Finland, the industrial complex envisioned by Electra would leverage the Ontario hydropower already delivered to the site of the First Cobalt refinery and the synergies offered by multiple product streams to provide a low-carbon and North American supply of key inputs to the electric vehicle revolution.
One battery park, four phases
Electra plans to develop its battery materials park in four phases, with reopening the expanded and upgraded First Cobalt refinery as step one.
With this work already well-advanced, commissioning of the cobalt refinery is slated to begin toward the end of 2022 and commercial production is expected by the onset of 2023.
Phase 2 of the battery park involves leveraging existing plant equipment to recover lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, and graphite from spent lithium-ion batteries.
A scoping study on this recycling component of the battery park – which will benefit from existing processes, infrastructure, and a team that will be operating the cobalt plant – is nearing completion.
Electra currently plans to commission a demonstration recycling plant in 2022 then start treating black mass from batteries on a commercial basis in 2023.
Electra anticipates being very competitive in battery recycling as its hydrometallurgical refinery, which involves recovery from liquid solution, is expected to recover more of the materials at lower cost than energy-intensive pyrometallurgical facilities that rely on extreme heat to melt and separate the materials.
Adding a recycling circuit to the already established and permitted refinery will be much less expensive and much faster to bring online than creating a similar facility from scratch.
Cobalt-rich lithium-ion batteries from recycled consumer electronics are expected to provide an initial supply of materials for the recycling circuit until the EV sector matures to the point that it contributes significantly to the closed-loop recycling circuit.
For phase 3, Electra plans to establish a 60,000-metric-ton-per-year nickel sulfate plant alongside the cobalt refinery. The nickel plant, which will be built with a modular design that allows for easy expansion, is an important piece to the evolving company's ambition to build North America's first integrated battery materials park.
To evaluate the battery-grade nickel sulfate market ahead of Electra advancing talks with prospective nearby suppliers of nickel raw material to feed the refinery, Electra has retained a global analyst CRU to carry out a study to assess market opportunities for a nickel sulfate plant in North America.
While this study will provide detailed analysis, Electra already knows that North American battery and automobile manufacturers are in need of massive quantities of nickel.
According to Rho Motion, an industry-leading EV and battery forecasting and analysis firm, 325,000 EVs were sold in the U.S. and Canada during the first half of 2021, a 130% increase over the first six months of 2020.
And this is only the beginning of an expected massive rise in EV sales as automakers such as General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Hyundai Motor Group, and Volkswagen Group committed to shifting most of their models to electric in the coming 10 to 15 years.
"There have been several new battery plant announcements over the past few months in North America, adding to a pipeline already exceeding 500 GWh (gigawatt-hours). These plants are going to require thousands of tonnes (metric tons) of locally sourced raw materials," said Michael Insulan, vice president, commercial at First Cobalt. "Electra intends to become the first regional refiner capable of providing these materials in bulk through a modular plant design. To keep up with a rapidly evolving market, we can and must do more for the circular economy and through localized primary feeds, resulting in more jobs and investments in our home market."
The fourth phase of the company's growth strategy will see the construction of a battery precursor materials plant in 2025, likely with a joint-venture partner with skills in producing the advanced anode and cathode materials required for lithium-ion batteries.
Electra says the synergies offered by collocating lithium-ion battery precursor manufacturing with the refining and recycling facilities will lower costs and shrink the carbon footprint by lessening the need to transport materials from one facility to another as they make their way into the batteries that power EVs.
And by sourcing raw materials mined locally, and refined and upgraded at a battery park powered by hydroelectricity, this facility is expected to provide a responsible and reliable source of the battery materials North American electric automakers are seeking.
"Globalization has created an electric vehicle supply chain that is too long, too costly and increasingly unreliable," said Mell. "Our automaker clients have a strong interest in greater localization of the upstream supply chain to achieve greater reliability, security of long-term supply, and a lower carbon footprint."