Nickel's evolving role in clean energy
Advancing extraction, processing, and recycling technologies Critical Minerals Alliances 2023 - September 12, 2023
Last updated 9/11/2023 at 9:37pm
While lithium has been the poster child for optimism and controversy in equal measure, nickel has its own crucial role to play in the batteries powering the clean energy future – increasing range and capacity – but is traditionally carbon-heavy to produce.
For nickel, the industry's focus has been twofold – obtaining enough and moving the needle between untenable quantities of emissions from mining and processing and the battery and alloying metal's necessary inclusion in nearly all energy transition technologies.
The current challenge is to nearly double the mineral supply in tandem with the booming electric vehicle and renewable energy industries while meeting environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) requirements.
The resulting reevaluation of mining and recycling infrastructure is producing new policies and private sector incentives focusing on where commodities are being sourced and how they are being processed. A subsequent wealth of financial and political support has gone into new mines, mining tech, global surveying, multi-industry engineering, and research and development – all hinging on expectations of drastically improved sustainability.
The United States still relies on imports for about half of its annual nickel consumption, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Currently, the more desirable import sources of nickel include Canada, which accounts for about half of America's imported supply, rounded off by Australia, Norway, and Finland. Russia has traditionally been a major supplier of nickel, a source the U.S. is hoping to move away from.
Companies like Tesla have had eyes on nickel from a mutually beneficial EV sales partnership with Indonesia – the world's biggest producer with twice the reserves of Australia and Canada combined. This Australasia island nation, however, has struggled to stay out of the news for its extremely poor worker safety and environmental record.
Bringing nickel home
The USGS added nickel to the 2022 critical minerals list due to its importance to the U.S. economy and clean energy goals, coupled with a high risk of resource disruption. EV manufacturers in the U.S. have been eager to earn incentives through the switch over to domestic nickel and increased recycling.
Presidential determinations continue to be signed into law, strengthening the U.S. industrial base for clean energy industries, encouraging domestic mines, and increasing byproduct and coproduct development at existing mines and other industrial facilities.
Nickel is one of the most technically challenging metals to process and refine, with every operation uniquely dependent on the type of ore deposit, which defines everything that follows in the value chain.
There is only one operating nickel mine in the U.S. – the Eagle Mine in Michigan, operated by a subsidiary of Toronto-based Lundin Mining, which produces raw nickel concentrate. The concentrate is then sent to Canadian smelters and returned to the U.S. primarily as stainless-steel products.
Michigan and the Midwest have the most nickel resource concentrations across the U.S., where several mining prospects have been working through red tape and local resistance to break ground.
Exemplifying this struggle are the NewRange and Twin Metals ore deposits in Minnesota, which recently had their permits revoked due to concerns over nearby bodies of water.
Nickel is often bound up in sulfide ores that can generate sulfuric acid when exposed to the environment. Sulfide ore and tailings exposed to air and moisture can create a chemical reaction of sulfuric acid, a historically devastating environmental contaminant.
First case study: Tesla
Looking to prove that nickel can be responsibly mined in the U.S., Talon Metals and joint venture partner Rio Tinto, the world's second-largest metals and mining corporation, contracted with Tesla to supply 75,000 metric tons of nickel concentrate and smaller quantities of cobalt produced from the Tamarack nickel project in Minnesota.
Hopes are high that the mine's cutting-edge design will speed through permitting so that it can begin production in 2027.
"The Talon team has taken an innovative approach to the discovery, development and production of battery materials, including to permanently store carbon as part of mine operations and the investigation of the novel extraction of battery materials," said Drew Baglino, senior vice president of powertrain and energy engineering at Tesla. "Responsible sourcing of battery materials has long been a focus for Tesla, and this project has the promise to accelerate the production of sustainable energy products in North America."
The aboveground footprint of the mine would be small, 80 acres at most, with no ore processed on site. Material would be transported by rail to a processing facility in North Dakota, where all the tailings would be sealed in concrete for storage. All water from mine operations would be collected and treated before being returned to the environment. Access from the surface to the ore body below the surface would be through sealed, concrete-lined tunnels to limit seepage.
"We do not believe that addressing climate change should come at the expense of the natural environment," said Talon Metals CEO Henri van Rooyen. "We can move to a clean energy system, protect the environment, respect tribal culture resources and self-determination, involve front line communities and working people in project approvals and create good paying union jobs. It doesn't have to be a choice."
Second case study: Lifezone Metals
Lifezone Metals plans to pair one of the largest undeveloped high-grade nickel sulfide deposits in the world with proprietary green-processing technology to produce cleaner metals.
Currently, smelting is responsible for 7% of all global CO2 emissions, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research and Projects Agency-Energy.
Enter the cheaper, cleaner processes of hydrometallurgy – the use of water-based solutions to extract metals. This technique is on the rise, competing with smelting as the chief method of producing nickel.
With this technology, Lifezone has developed a proprietary process to replace carbon-intensive smelting as well as avoid harmful sulfur dioxide emissions entirely, reducing these greenhouse gases from mining operations and industry supply chains.
The technology will be piloted at Lifezone's Kabanga project in Tanzania, one of the largest and highest-quality undeveloped nickel deposits in the world. Through future licensing, the proprietary technology can eventually be made available in the U.S., Canada, and other countries.
Kabanga and its hydromet processing facility have the potential to be one of the lowest cost, greenest lithium, copper, and cobalt production facilities in the world, with the aim to maximize the use of hydroelectric and renewable energy to power its mine and refinery sites as well.
"We see the metals supply chain as the major bottleneck holding back the promise of wider EV adoption in the U.S.," said Lifezone CEO Chris Showalter. "We believe that this lower cost, cleaner and more effective solution can also help to facilitate re-shoring battery manufacturing back to the U.S., and ultimately the electrification of society as a whole."
Breakthroughs on the horizon
Michigan Technological University has received $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to test an innovative method that dramatically speeds up carbon dioxide sequestration and also aids in the extraction of critical minerals from mine tailings.
The project will be piloted by Eagle Mine in partnership with Polymet Mining in Minnesota, two major mining companies with nickel operations. Eagle Mine anticipates producing 440 million pounds of nickel and 429 million pounds of copper before exhausting its ore body.
Michigan Tech's project – "Energy Reduction and Improved Critical Mineral Recovery from Low-Grade Disseminated Sulfide Deposits and Mine Tailings" – seeks to permanently and cleanly mineralize and store carbon dioxide during mineral extraction. The method greatly accelerates the kinetics of carbon dioxide sequestration to achieve the result on an industrial scale in just four hours.
Michigan Tech's project is the only one in the state to receive funding from Mining Innovations for Negative Emissions Resource Recovery (MINER), a new initiative through the DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy fund.
The MINER initiative funds research that increases domestic mineral yields and decreases required energy and emissions in order to improve critical minerals extraction with market-ready technologies.
Traditional and urban reclamation
DOE continues to promote an expanded recycling industry to complement increased production. Considerable intellectual and material investments are still needed to develop a more specialized industry capable of recovering various critical minerals before a circular economy is possible.
Urban mining focuses on the potential for cities to be considered mineral resources in the same way geological reserves serve as a source of raw materials. As a way to supplement primary mining, what were once considered waste materials have to transform into untapped urban mineral reserves ready to be recovered and put back into use.
Beyond landfills and tailings, the urban mining approach takes an opportunistic, holistic view of raw materials and how to best recover them, starting with forward-thinking product engineering, building in a second life and easier recovery.
With policymakers and industry leaders encouraged to see the whole picture, truly closed-loop supply chains can be developed to unlock resources closer to where they are needed, increase resource independence and reduce costs and energy use.
Developing a robust recycling infrastructure is likely going to be the final step toward achieving net-zero emissions as a society.