A mining giant owned by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest aims to build Canada's first processing facility for low-carbon nickel used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries and forge a key “missing piece” in the country’s plans to become a global EV manufacturing hub.

Wyloo Canada signed a memorandum of understanding on Wednesday with the city of Sudbury, Ont. and two First Nations to buy land for a facility it says could handle 50 per cent of the nickel demand from the $40 billion in investments in EV supply chain ventures since 2020 that have turned Canada into a sector hot-spot.

Automakers Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen and, most recently, Honda, have announced plans for EV-linked production in Canada, which plans to phase out gas-fuelled vehicles by 2035. Battery-makers Northvolt and Stellantis have also started plans to operate factories in the country.

"While we commend this investment, it has exposed a significant gap in the North American EV supply chain, specifically, the conversion of ore to battery chemicals,” said Kristan Straub, CEO of Wyloo Canada, which is backed by Forrest’s Tattarang investment group.

“The urgency to bolster North America's capacity for processing metals — in particular, nickel — has never been more apparent," Straub said in a statement.

Wyloo’s Sudbury plant will process low-carbon nickel sulfate and nickel-dominant precursor cathode active material (pCAM), a key component in EV batteries.

The downstream facility is "the missing piece in Canada's aspirations to develop a domestic EV battery supply chain," Straub said. Local media reports said the plant could cost up to $900 million and create several hundred jobs.

Nickel would be sourced from Wyloo's proposed Eagle's Nest mine in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire mineral belt, as well as third-party suppliers and recycled battery materials.

The Ring of Fire — a 5,000 sq. km. area about 500 km northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont. — is a potential source of critical minerals such as cobalt, nickel, copper and platinum for the EV industry. Its development has been controversial, with Ontario First Nations chiefs in January calling for a one-year moratorium on mining claims on their territories after a surge in the previous year.

"We want to be leaders in this," says @AtikamekshengA Gimaa Craig Nootchtai. The agreement is a historic one, he says, for having Indigenous representation at the table "from the outset" for negotiations. #EVs #Climate #phaseoutfossilfuels

Ontario’s Conservative government, which has made mining the Ring of Fire a priority to supply metals for a fully-integrated EV industry, later denied their request for a pause in claims.

The Atikameksheng Anishnawbek and Wahnapitae First Nations will partner with Wyloo on the Sudbury project.

"We have been left out for over 100 years from resource development on our lands. This is the first time [First Nations] have been at the table from the outset on such a major project,” Atikameksheng Anishnawbek Gimaa Craig Nootchtai told a business conference in Sudbury on Thursday.

"We feel this project is just a stepping stone to many more. We are 'pro' sustainable development. We want to be leaders in this [for all First Nations],” he added.

Wahnapitae First Nation chief Larry Roque said on Wednesday the partnership “will showcase what needs to be done for other First Nations and private companies."

Wyloo is completing a scoping study for the project and expects to break ground after the opening of the Eagle's Nest mine, which is due to start construction in 2027.

Straub pledged to deliver a “responsibly-sourced supply of high-grade clean nickel” and a “stable and ethical supply chain” for an EV industry that would not have to rely on overseas nickel imports.

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It's interesting but troubling to read reports on the now high speed development of batteries, which are now moving quickly away from chemistry containing nickel and cobalt (LMNC) then to read about the development of new mines in remote, pristine locations specifically for EV battery-grade nickel.

Even lithium is now being partially displaced by cheaper, more abundant and easier to process materials like sodium. The sodium-lithium hybrid battery has just appeared in the marketplace. It has an energy density almost as much as LMNC batteries but is safer, cheaper, has extended range capability and excellent cold weather performance. And no nickel or cobalt.

On top of all that we have recycling becoming a major cog in the battery making gear. Many battery makers and public funding managers have responded to the criticism about lithium mining and are making recycled material a big part of the process. When batteries for EVs, and more importantly power grid storage at all scales, becomes commonplace there will be two remarkable effects. Fossil fuels will finally meet its match and give way to clean renewable energy. And renewables in their saturation point entirety will reach phenomenal levels of recycling and, over time, greatly reduce the need for mined materials. Some have predicted the potential for a completely closed loop recycling system.

The Ring of Fire also has chromium, a key component of finer grades of stainless steel. Nickel is also used in steel making. Perhaps the company researchers are looking at the long term role of these metals in steel, but for some inexplicable reason chose to focus on old school EV batteries in their media releases.

None of this will come to pass without the permission of the Indigenous people who have occupied (I'd say owned) the Ring of Fire for time immemorial. No government or multinational will be able to escape or diminish meaningful consultation with First Nations. Neither Ford or Trudeau can afford the bad press. Poilievre will be bullheaded, but that brings its own electoral peril in time. In my opinion, the ROF will either be developed with First Nations as full partners who hopefully will impose very high environmental standards, or not be developed at all.