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Local View: Minnesota-mined nickel is not the future of electric-vehicle batteries

From the column: "Nickel seems bound to fall off the critical-minerals list long before it is mined by Talon."

Core samples in boxes lay across a table.
Rock core samples sit on a long table at Talon Metals on Oct. 26, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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Industry is scrambling to develop new electric-vehicle battery technologies to replace those containing nickel, because nickel is very expensive and an environmental hazard to mine. Furthermore, nickel- and cobalt-based lithium-ion batteries are not sufficiently energy dense to support long-range vehicles, can spontaneously catch fire, degrade quickly with use, and do not function well in cold weather.

Currently, nickel costs $25,000 to $30,000 per ton. Cobalt is $50,000 per ton. These materials are too expensive for mass-market applications. Nickel- and cobalt-based batteries can never be a solution to affordable electric vehicles for the mass market.

That is why industry is developing new battery chemistries that use iron, sulfur, or sodium, which cost approximately $100 per ton (and not $30,000 to $50,000 per ton). Each new battery type is expected to be designed using these low-cost minerals to address specific niches within the market. Our future includes multi-chemistry batteries using sustainable, low-cost materials.

It’s looking like the mining of nickel for electric-vehicle batteries will be as obsolete as typewriters in the digital age or horse and buggy in the automobile era, yet with far more dangerous environmental and public health consequences.

The proposed Talon Metals nickel-sulfide mine in Tamarack is not expected to be producing nickel until 2030, at the earliest. When considering the inherent risks of that proposal, we need to focus on nickel markets in the next decade and not data from two to five years ago. Permitting this mining will take five to 10 years, given the unresolved and significant environmental concerns in rural Aitkin County. In addition, the mine could jeopardize wild rice lakes protected by treaties in 1854 and 1855 that reserve for the Anishinaabe people their inherent rights to hunt, fish, and gather in perpetuity. The mine also could pose a risk to waterways and to the rights of Anishinaabeg in treaty territory.

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What will the foreign mining conglomerate Rio Tinto Talon Metals use Minnesota’s scant nickel reserves for then? Since nickel will likely not be used in electric-vehicle batteries from 2030 on, the minerals seem likely to be destined for worldwide markets, possibly in China, the model provided by Michigan’s Eagle Mine, an operating nickel mine that Talon Metals seems to want to emulate.

By 2030, electric-vehicle battery needs are expected to be satisfied by safer, cheaper, energy-dense battery technologies that use locally sourced inexpensive materials. In July 2021, Tesla announced a long-term shift to lithium ferrous phosphate (LFP) batteries that are much safer and have much longer life expectancy (and no nickel). Lyten and Theion corporations are testing a lithium-sulfur battery (no nickel) with two to three times the energy density of old nickel-based lithium-ion batteries for longer-range vehicles. CATL and NATRON corporations are trialing sodium-ion batteries without nickel, cobalt, or lithium but from locally sourced inexpensive materials. New iron/air batteries could also provide high-energy density at low costs.

Nickel seems bound to fall off the critical-minerals list long before it is mined by Talon. Why should we give the last known reserves of nickel in the U.S. to a foreign mining company which seems likely to sell it on the open world market and and so it could possibly end up in China? The mining industry is not looking out for a prosperous civilization 100 to 1,000 years in the future. It seems more likely to exploit local resources now for the money, with no regard for the future — or the local environment.

We need aggressive programs to recycle metals. We should keep what scant nickel that remains in Minnesota and Michigan in the ground for future generations.

Lynn Anderson of Round Lake and Tamarack, Minnesota, is a volunteer for the Tamarack Water Alliance.

Lynn Anderson.jpg
Lynn Anderson

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