Lithium Battery Valley emerges in Quebec
GM, BASF, POSCO, and Nouveau Monde set up in Becancour Metal Tech News – March 16, 2022
Last updated 3/22/2022 at 3:02pm
Becancour, a small Quebec town along the shores of the St. Lawrence River about midway between Montreal and Quebec City, is rapidly emerging as an epicenter for producing the advanced materials needed for lithium-ion batteries powering the electric vehicle revolution.
This rural Canadian town of around 12,800 people surfaced in the battery space about a year ago when Nouveau Monde Graphite Inc. announced plans to build a facility there to produce the coated spherical purified graphite that goes into the anodes of lithium-ion batteries. Now, General Motors, POSCO Chemical, and BASF are setting up shop to produce cathode active materials and lithium battery recycling in this strategic Quebec locale.
What makes Becancour such a popular destination for some of the biggest names in North America's burgeoning lithium-ion battery sector?
BASF, which recently acquired a large parcel of land to set up shop in Becancour, says the small city offers the ideal combination of highly efficient logistics for delivering battery materials to both North America and Europe and has ready access to hydroelectricity that will lower the carbon footprint of products produced there, an advantage that can be passed on to the battery and EV sectors.
Becancour also happens to be in an area of eastern Canada that is rich in the minerals and metals needed for battery material manufacturing, which is why Nouveau Monde blazed the advanced battery materials trail to this municipality about 100 miles (165 kilometers) from the innovative company's Matawinie graphite mine project.
All these advantages, however, would likely be for naught if were not for the efforts of Becancour and its "dynamic inhabitants" to attract commercial and industrial businesses to set up shop through outreach and the establishment of four industrial parks on the plentiful land available in the area.
"Bécancour is a modern society where there are large spaces. The cultural life there is enriching and the activities and leisure varied. Investing in Bécancour is a logical, profitable and safe choice," the city penned on the industrial development page of its website. "Various grant programs are available to entrepreneurs and investors. In addition, the investor will be able to count on a resident population of more than 12,800 dynamic inhabitants who are involved in their community."
This area between Quebec's two largest cities has also garnered the support of the provincial and federal governments, which see Becancour as eastern Canada's "Battery Valley."
Carbon-neutral anode material
With a vision of supplying the world's top battery and automotive manufacturers with graphite anode material that does not contribute to carbon dioxide emissions during its mining and processing, Nouveau Monde is developing a complete mine-to-anode material supply chain in Quebec.
"We know that for many of our potential global clients, being able to purchase North American produced, high-quality carbon-neutral battery anode material, is of great importance," said Nouveau Monde Graphite Chairman Arne Frandsen. "Nouveau Monde is determined to establish itself as one of the world's largest and most important sources of anode material for lithium-ion batteries."
A feasibility study completed in 2018 details plans for a mine at its Matawinie mine project in Quebec that will produce 100,000 metric tons of graphite concentrate per year.
Graphite produced at its mine and processing facility near the town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints will be trucked to Becancour, where it is being upgraded to coated spherical graphite that will be packed into the anodes of lithium-ion batteries, along with other graphite products.
To reduce the carbon footprint of this graphite to net-zero, the company is working with Caterpillar Inc. and Propulsion Québec to develop and build battery electric mining equipment for the operation. The processing facilities in Saint-Michel-des-Saints and Becancour will be plugged into the hydroelectricity charged Quebec power grid.
In a show of support, the Quebec government provided Nouveau Monde with a C$600,000 grant to partly fund development of the spherical graphite facility in Becancour.
"Our government is proud to support the activities of Nouveau Monde Graphite, a company involved in the battery market," Quebec Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonatan Julien said early last year. "The objective of our program is to support companies in carrying out their research and development projects in order to innovate and improve the competitiveness of Québec's mining industry."
The anode plant in Becancour is already shaping flake graphite from Matawinie into spheres and purifying this material. The final step, which is expected to get underway before midyear, is to add a hard carbon coating.
The spherical shape allows the graphite to be more efficiently packed into battery cells, while the coating extends the graphite's lifetime capacity.
This plant is being built to produce 42,000 metric tons of anode material per year during the initial two phases and is designed for expansion to keep pace with growing lithium-ion demand. This facility will also produce around 3,000 t/y of purified jumbo flake graphite, a premium product, and a micronized graphite byproduct.
GM moves into Battery Valley
Becancour's status as Battery Valley was further cemented earlier this month when GM announced that it is working with POSCO Chemical to develop a roughly $400 million cathode active materials plant there.
"It is so exciting to see GM Canada and Quebec playing a key role in building the emerging 'mines to mobility' EV battery ecosystem in North America," said GM Canada President and Managing Director Scott Bell. "With this new processing facility in Bécancour, GM will help lead the EV battery supply chain while also launching Canada's first full EV manufacturing plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, later this year."
Lithium-ion cathode active materials, or CAM as they are often referred to in the industry, are a combination of lithium and other metals.
The cathodes in GM's Ultium batteries, which are powering the Detroit automaker's expanding EV lineup, are made from a combination of lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and aluminum.
Construction of the Becancour processing facility that will produce Ultium CAM, which will be developed and operated under a joint venture that is majority-owned by POSCO Chemical, is already underway.
"POSCO Chemical is set to expand battery material supplying capability across North America through establishing a cathode material plant in Canada," said POSCO Chemical CEO Min Kyung-Zoon. "We will lead the successful transition to the EV era by further strengthening the strategic partnership with GM and securing a production line with world-class technological competitiveness."
GM and POSCO's decision to build this cathode materials plant in Becancour is in line with Quebec's lithium-ion battery and EV manufacturing ambitions.
"First, we want to exploit and transform Quebec's minerals to manufacture battery components. Second, we want to produce the cells that will power the assembly plants. Third, we want to develop battery recycling using Quebec technologies. Finally, we want to increase the production of commercial electric vehicles," said Quebec Minister of Economy and Innovation Pierre Fitzgibbon.
Becancour hub for BASF
Furthering Quebec's four-part strategy outlined by the province's economic minister, BASF signed an agreement to secure a large land package in Becancour to develop its own cathode active materials production facility, as well as future plants that will recycle battery materials and refine the metals needed for cathodes.
"With new investments in electric vehicles and supporting infrastructure being announced continuously in North America, we are pleased to pursue our own investment in the region," said Peter Schuhmacher, president of the catalysts division at BASF. "This land acquisition is a necessary prerequisite to further advance our strategy to grow our footprint in key regions to better serve our customer's operations with sustainable and reliable local supply."
Already a leading global provider of cathode active materials, BASF says the large land package it has secured in Becancour provides enough room to produce as much as 100,000 tons of CAM per year with potential for a supply of precursor cathode active materials, which would be the battery-grade metal materials ready to be made into CAM.
The Germany-based chemistry company says the facilities it is developing in Quebec's emerging Battery Valley will be connected to its global metal sourcing network with capacity for a nickel and cobalt base metal refinery and recycling of all battery metals, including lithium.
Project planning is progressing and, subject to necessary approvals, BASF plans to commission the initial phase of its Becancour facility in 2025.
"We look forward to supporting the e-mobility transition in the United States, Canada, Mexico and beyond," said Schuhmacher.
Canada's Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne hinted that there could be more EV-related companies moving into Quebec's Battery Valley.
"We're building around Becancour kind of the full ecosystem of the critical minerals you need to produce a battery ... that's why you'll see more to come," Champagne said during an interview with Reuters.
Fitzgibbon's press manager, Mathieu St-Amand, told the Electrek transportation publication that the Quebec economy minister met with Tesla executives late last year to discuss where the eastern Canadian province fit into the iconic EV manufacturer's EV ambitions.
Considering how active Tesla has been along the entire battery materials supply chain, making deals that extend all the way back to battery metal mines, a hub in Becancour and its proximity to battery raw materials, low-carbon electricity, and infrastructure would not be a surprise.