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How a Quebec Lithium Mine May Help Make Electric Cars Affordable

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About 350 miles northwest of Montreal, in a vast pine forest, lies a deep mining pit with mottled rock walls. Pitt has changed owners many times and has fallen into bankruptcy, but now it could help determine the future of electric vehicles.

The mine contains lithium, a vital ingredient in scarce electric vehicle batteries. If it opens on schedule early next year, it will be his second source of metals in North America and much-needed raw materials near auto factories in Canada, the United States and Mexico, in line with the policies of the Biden administration. offers the hope of being able to extract and purify It aims to break Chinese dominance in the battery supply chain.

Having more mines will also help contain the price of lithium, which has surged fivefold since mid-2021, making electric vehicles very costly and out of reach for many drivers. The average new electric car costs about $66,000, just a few thousand dollars below the median household income last year.

But the mine outside La Corne, operated by Australian company Sayona Mining, also presents a number of hurdles that must be overcome to produce and process the materials needed to separate cars from fossil fuels. increase. The mine has multiple owners, some of whom have filed for bankruptcy. As a result, some analysts and investors warn that many of the mines currently being developed may become unviable.

There are dozens of lithium mines in various stages of development in Canada and the United States. Canada is on a mission to become a leading source of raw materials and components for electric vehicles. But most of these projects are years away from production. Even if we were able to raise the billions of dollars needed to start a business, there is no guarantee that we would be able to produce enough lithium to meet the needs of the continent.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said in July that being a lithium supplier was “a license to print money.” But it’s also a risky and volatile business. Ore buried deep underground may not have enough lithium to be profitable. Opposition from environmental groups and neighbors can delay or cancel the project.

Mines tend to be in remote areas. By industry standards, Sayona’s mines at the end of a 12-mile gravel road are a stone’s throw away. Many other projects are far less accessible.

After the price of lithium halved from 2017 to 2020, the mine’s former owner, Chinese battery maker CATL, closed operations and sought protection from creditors for a subsidiary that owned the property. Sayona purchased the business last year in partnership with Piedmont Lithium, a lithium mining and processing company based in Belmont, North Carolina.

Some investors believe the lithium hype is exaggerated and have bet on mining companies. They believe some companies lack the expertise to blow up the ore, haul it out of the earth, and separate the lithium from the surrounding rock. often

This risk is reflected in the volatility of Sayona shares, which trade on the Australian Stock Exchange in Sydney. After peaking at A$36 ($24) in April, he plummeted to $13 in June and has been trading around $28 lately.

Keith Phillips, Chief Executive Officer of Piedmont Lithium, which owns 25% of Sayona’s Quebec project, said: He added, “Other people take the opposite view.”

For many in government and the auto industry, the main concern is whether there will be enough lithium to meet the burgeoning demand for electric vehicles.

The Inflation Reduction Act signed into law by President Biden in August has raised the stakes of the auto industry. To qualify for some of the legislative incentives and subsidies awarded to car buyers and car manufacturers that total more than $10,000 per electric vehicle, battery manufacturers must enter into agreements with North America or the United States. You must use raw materials from the country where you are. trade agreements.

The world also needs more refineries. It is a plant where raw lithium is processed into a concentrated form of metal used in batteries. Most lithium is processed in China, and Piedmont and others are planning to build refineries in the United States. But processing lithium requires scarce expertise, said Eric Norris, president of lithium at Albemarle, a mining and processing company in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lithium is the lightest known metal and its ability to store energy makes it attractive for batteries. However, lithium deposits are embedded in other metals and minerals. So extracting lithium can be very difficult.

The mining industry “broadly hasn’t sharpened its ability to build conversion capacity repeatedly and consistently,” said Norris, who said even his company, which has a wealth of experience, is suffering from delays in building processing plants. pointed out.

Albemarle operates the only active lithium mine in the United States at Silver Peaks, Nevada. There, metals are extracted from the underground liquid, salt water. Some Tesla batteries contain lithium from Nevada, but the site’s total annual production is enough for about 80,000 cars. According to the Kelley Blue Book, the American has purchased 370,000 battery-powered vehicles in his first six months of 2022, and sales are growing rapidly.

Albemarle also produces lithium in Chile and Australia. The company is working to restart its lithium mine in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and plans to build a refinery in the Southeast.

With California and other states moving to ban internal combustion engines, even these big projects aren’t enough to meet demand. Mr Norris said:

One of the first things Sayona had to do when he took over the La Corne mine was to expose the terraced walls of dark and thin stone from previous excavations that filled the pit. was to pump out the water. Lighter locks contain lithium.

After being blasted into pieces and crushed, the rock is processed in several stages to remove waste. Located in a large building with corrugated blue metal walls a short drive from the mine, a laser scanner uses jets of compressed air to separate the brightly colored lithium ore. The ore is then refined in tanks filled with detergent and water, where the lithium floats to the surface and is skimmed off.

The final product looks like fine white sand, but still contains only about 6% lithium. The rest include aluminum, silicon, and other substances. The material is sent to smelters, most of which are in China, for further refinement.

Yves Desrosiers, Sayona’s engineer and senior advisor, started working at the La Corne mine in 2012. During the tour, he expressed his satisfaction with what he said was improved by Sayona and Piedmont. These include better control of dust and plans to restore the site once lithium is depleted in decades.

“Because we are fixing everything, productivity is greatly increased.,” Mr Desrozier said. In the next few years, the company plans to upgrade its facility to produce lithium carbonate with a much higher concentration of lithium than the raw metal extracted from the ground.

Desrosiers said it will draw power from Quebec’s abundant hydroelectric power plants and will only use water that is reused in the separation process. Still, environmental activists are keeping a close eye on the project.

Mining is a pillar of Quebec’s economy, and La Corne is home to people who earn their living by mining iron, nickel, copper, zinc and other metals. There are active gold mines near the region’s largest city, Val d’Or, or the Valley of Gold.

Mining is “our life,” said metallurgist-turned-politician Sebastian Dastus, mayor of Amos, a small city north of La Corne. “Everyone who works in mining or contractors knows or is close to family.”

While most people support lithium mining, a sizeable minority opposes it, Mr. Dustos said. Opponents fear another lithium mine Sayona is developing in nearby Lamotte, Quebec, could pollute underground rivers.

Rodrigue Turgeon, a local attorney and program co-leader of the watchdog group MiningWatch Canada, is pushing for Sayona Mine to undergo a rigorous environmental review. An indigenous group, Longpoint First Nation, claims the mine is on ancestral territory and wants to conduct its own environmental impact study.

Sebastien Lemire, who represents the region around La Corne in the Canadian parliament, said he wants to ensure that the wealth created by lithium mining flows to the people of Quebec, not to outside investors.

Remire praised activists for being “cautious” about environmental standards, but he likes mining and drives an electric Chevrolet Volt.

“You have to,” he said at a café in La Corne.

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