A small Canadian mining company says it has found a way to mine nickel without spewing a ton of carbon into the atmosphere — an engineering challenge that no less than Elon Musk says is the key to producing the energy to power the world's future transportation needs.
Canada Nickel Company is in the midst of setting up a facility near Timmins, Ont., that CEO Mark Selby said can extract the metal virtually carbon-free.
At least one prominent nickel user is excited. Musk, the CEO of electric car company Tesla, needs nickel to satisfy his company's insatiable appetite for batteries.
The process hinges on the rock in question being what's known as serpentine rock, a type of mineral-rich ore that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere when exposed to air
The company's property sits on one of the dozen largest known deposits of nickel sulphide on Earth, and about 90 per cent of it is the type that can absorb carbon, Selby said in an interview with CBC News. "When they are exposed to air, they naturally absorb CO2 in a spontaneous reaction."
That's an obvious advantage, but the appeal doesn't end there. Conventional mining often uses a lot of natural gas and diesel to power activities, but that's not the case in Northern Ontario.
"All of the electricity ... will be hydroelectric — and because we have access to it, we can also look at using hydroelectric trolley trucks and electric shovels in place of diesel-powered ones," Selby said.
Many metal mines also have to ship the raw material over extensive distances for processing, and there's a similar process for waste product. But that, too, won't be the case at the company's one-stop-shopping site.
"The beauty of it is that there's nothing that we have to specifically invent here," Selby said. "It's just taking a bunch of existing technologies and taking advantage of the location of where we're at."
In order to produce the amount of nickel needed for an electric car battery, a conventional nickel mine would produce about four tonnes of carbon dioxide. Canada Nickel's approach could get that down to practically zero.
The project faces a few hurdles, including environmental assessments by local authorities, as well as a number of internal assessments about profitability and determining exactly how much carbon dioxide the rock in question will be able to remove from the atmosphere. It's on track for approval sometime next year and to start producing maybe a year after that if all goes well.
Project could bring hundreds of jobs
The result could be one of the largest nickel sulphide mines in the world, a $1 billion investment that will produce hundreds of jobs for decades to come for the local economy — and take a much lighter environmental toll than other forms of nickel mining.
"Timmins is one of a very handful of unique locations globally that could really make that happen," Selby said.
Musk had a message for nickel miners in the company's second-quarter earnings call earlier this month:
"I'd just like to re-emphasize, any mining companies out there, please mine more nickel," Musk said. "Wherever you are in the world, please mine more nickel and don't wait for nickel to go back to some high point that you experienced some five years ago or whatever, go for efficiency."
Nickel has a high energy density, which makes it especially useful for cathodes. The metal is doubly in demand because Tesla is in the process of phasing out the use of cobalt in its batteries.
"Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way. So, hopefully, this message goes out to all mining companies. Please get nickel," Musk said.
About half of the nickel in the world currently comes from the South Pacific — either from the Philippines, Indonesia or the tiny island nation of New Caledonia. On paper, Canada Nickel's facility would be an ideal supplier for Tesla because it is closer to the company's production chain in California and to Nevada, where it makes batteries — which is perhaps why Musk welcomed news of the project on his Twitter feed recently.
Selby said the idea for the project has been in the works for a while, but the interest Musk has drawn to the venture could be serendipitous because of the attention he commands.
"It's good to have a good idea, but it's also good to get the timing right," he said.