Based on recent US Geological Survey (USGS) 2022 report (pubs.usgs.gov/periodicals/mcs2022/mcs2022-nickel.pdf), the Tamarack North Mine will make NO difference in the global supply of nickel but only serve to increase profits for Rio Tinto, a large foreign mining company. Indeed, the report shows that currently, only 0.6% of the world’s supply of nickel comes from the US (primarily from Michigan Eagle Mine). This percentage will likely decrease since:
Unlike the iron mined on the Minnesota Iron Range, minerals near Tamarack are found as high sulfide deposits (a mixture of sulphur and other minerals). These sulfide ores contain metals (such as nickel, copper and cobalt) that are bonded to sulfur, forming sulfide minerals. When these ores are exposed to air and moisture, a chemical reaction occurs that generates sulfuric acid that migrates into the surrounding environment and, through leaching, releases heavy metals present in the waste rock, pit walls, and tailings basins of mining operations. The sulfuric acid along with dissolved heavy metals released onto the land can seep into the rich aquifers of the area and then into streams and lakes at levels that are toxic to fish and other aquatic life. This type of pollution is commonly referred to as Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) and has the potential to devastate entire ecosystems. The close proximity of sulfide mines to valued water bodies such as lakes and rivers of the Mississippi watershed intensifies the magnitude of this issue. All of the water bodies in the water rich Tamarack area are linked by multiple aquifers.
So you might ask, why do we permit sulfide mining in water rich areas? Talon Metals asserts that the nickel is needed for EV batteries to drive the world wide effort to convert our energy economy toward a fully sustainable model.
However, is nickel really needed for EV batteries in the 2026+ timeframe when Talon might expect to be producing nickel from the Talon mine? Actually no … read on.
Electric Vehicles (EVs) are the current rage in the transportation sector; and for good reason. The new electric motors that power an EV can be more than 90% efficient as compared to gas vehicles which today have efficiencies in 20-30% range. Electric motors are also simpler with fewer parts and lower maintenance costs. Wear and tear on the brakes is also minimized since braking energy can be directed to recharging the batteries rather than be lost as heat. And there's no gasoline to buy. You can charge your EV while you sleep right at your home. The fly in the EV "ointment" is that EV's need affordable, energy dense batteries. Currently, there is no battery technology that can match the energy density of gasoline. But hope is on the way.
Today, the most energy dense EV batteries use lithium along with nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) or nickel cobalt aluminum (NCA). However, nickel and cobalt are very expensive. This makes these batteries suitable for use only in expensive long range models that most of us can't afford. Auto manufactures realize this and are now beginning to use lower cost lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries that have no nickel or cobalt in their standard and midrange EV models.
In July of 2021, Elon Musk (Tesla) noted that Tesla is making a "long-term shift" toward cheaper LFP based battery technology for its standard / mid-range products (no nickel). In addition to lower costs, LFP batteries offer several other advantages including higher thermal stability and better cycle life. Ford CEO Jim Farley and Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess have said that their companies will use LFP batteries as well (no nickel). By eliminating nickel from the battery mix, these companies are achieving more reasonable EV cost points while increasing battery safety and improving battery life despite the decrease in power density. See https://www.mining.com/cobalt-nickel-free-electric-car-batteries-are-a-runaway-success/ and https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/28/what-teslas-bet-on-iron-based-batteries-means-for-manufacturers/.
More recently, Tesla confirmed that nearly half of all its vehicles produced in 1Q2022 are already using LFP (non-nickel based) batteries ( tesla-cdn.thron.com/static/IOSHZZ_TSLA_Q1_2022_Update_G9MOZE.pdf see page 8). Tesla is also witching to LFP Batteries for its Energy Storage Solutions ( www.tesmanian.com/blogs/tesmanian-blog/tesla-is- converting-to-use-lfp-batteries-in-the-megapack ).
This migration to LFP batteries for EVs will only increase throughout 2023 and 2024 as new LFP US based battery manufacturing plants go into operation. Although LFP EV batteries may be about 25% less energy dense that the traditional Lithium-Ion EV battery, these new LFP batteries can be safely charged to 100% without loss of life/capacity over time. Indeed, Tesla and other EV manufactures recommend charging their Lithion-Ion EV batteries to only 80% to maintain their original capacity. However, LFP batteries can have 5 times the life of the traditional Lithium-Ion battery with only an equivalent 5% drop in range / energy density (assuming the Lithium-Ion battery is charged to 80%).
But the story does not stop there. CATL, the world's largest supplier of EV batteries, recently announced that it's launching a sodium-ion alternative for EV batteries in 2023 (no nickel). These cells are able to recharge faster than their lithium-ion cousins, and have much better low temperature performance, a significant factor in Northern Minnesota. The energy density of sodium-ion batteries still falls short of the best lithium-ion batteries but CATL says it plans to increase energy density to be on par with LFP based batteries next year. See https://cleantechnica.com/2021/07/30/catl-reveals-sodium-ion-battery-with-160-wh-kg-energy-density/.
But we still need batteries with higher energy density to compete with gas based vehicles. To that end, a number of companies are working on next-generation lithium-sulfur (Li-S) battery technologies that could be 2.5 - 5 times more energy dense than existing lithium nickel based batteries. For example, the Lyten company says that their lithium-sulfur batteries are safer, charge faster, perform better in low temperature environments and have much higher energy density than Li-Ion packs. See https://news.umich.edu/1000-cycle-lithium-sulfur-battery-could-quintuple-electric-vehicle-ranges/ and https://lyten.com/what-is-a-lithium-sulfur-battery/ as well as https://www.motortrend.com/features/lyten-lithium-sulfur-battery/.
Most automakers also have their eye on solid state lithium batteries. Solid-state lithium-metal battery technology has the potential to lower cost, significantly increase the cell energy density, reduce charge time, and enable longer battery life. Production lines for solid state EV batteries are expected to ramp up in 2023 and be fully online by 2025.
Another factor influencing the use of nickel in car batteries is the announced transition by Toyota from its existing use of Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries used in Toyota hybrids to Lithium based solid state batteries during the second half of the decade. See https://www.greencarreports.com/news/1134692_toyota-solid-state-battery-hybrid-by-2025-prius. Note also that the automaker has said affordability, not range, will be the emphasis for its future EVs.
Talon Metals is marketing to the high end car market claiming that lithium nickel batteries are a "must have" to meet the climate challenge. However, most people can never afford these expensive vehicles and thus the lithium nickel battery is doomed to a niche, short term, high end EV market. Instead, new low cost, high efficiency EV batteries will be coming on the market in the next few years. Well before Talon extracts minerals from the Tamarack mine, these new battery technologies will obviate the need for nickel in EV batteries.
Talon argues publicly that its better to mine in Minnesota than to support foreign mine operations that pollute and utilize child labor. But wait … operations in Indonesia are not the responsibility of the people in Minnesota. If anything, the mining industry itself (Talon and their partners) need to be addressing this issue as a global industry. Its the mining industry that are employing these immoral tactics. This is much more a mining industry (Talon and partners) problem than something that can be placed on the people of Minnesota to solve.
Talon Metals points to both the Wisconsin Flambeau mine as well as the Michigan Eagle mine as examples of environmentally successful mines. However, the evidence indicates that both of these mining operations have significantly polluted their respective local areas. See issues with the Flambeau Mine and issues with the Eagle Mine for more information. To date, no sulfide mine has been able to operate without causing some form of pollution in the surrounding environment.