Northvolt’s mega-factory project in Montérégie is considered by many to be the last piece to complete the production chain of batteries for electric vehicles in Quebec. But will the company be able to source its entire supplies from Quebec or Canada, particularly for its minerals like lithium? Nothing is assured at this stage.
In its future Quebec factory, Northvolt will produce its own cathode active material, composed of nickel, manganese, cobalt and lithium, explains its director of public affairs, Laurent Therrien. This active material will be applied to aluminum strips to create the cathode, while graphite will be joined to copper strips to form the anode,
If all goes as planned, this process will be in place by 2026, except for the creation of the active cathode material, which will initially come from Northvolt factories elsewhere in the world.
The Swedish company will therefore have to obtain several critical and strategic minerals. “The supply chain in this industry is extremely complicated. Between the mine and the arrival at our facilities, there are often several transactions that pass through several countries, so this makes understanding the origin of our raw materials very complex,” answers Mr. Therrien.
For several of these minerals, all the extraction and processing infrastructures are not yet in place in Quebec. For example, there is no manganese mine or mine project in Quebec. As for lithium, one mine is in operation and at least six others are at the project stage, while two processing plants are planned for 2026. Nouveau Monde Graphite aspires to supply graphite to companies like Northvolt thanks to its future mines and anode materials factory.
Not 100% local
The Northvolt spokesperson says that discussions have begun with Quebec companies, without revealing which ones. “It is not realistic to think that 100% of our supply can be local, but it is in our interest to source from Quebec,” recognizes Mr. Therrien.
This interest is first and foremost environmental, since the company seeks to produce the greenest batteries possible. The use of hydroelectric energy is an advantage for Quebec mining companies. A local circuit also helps reduce carbon emissions linked to transport.
Quebec suppliers still need to offer competitive prices. “Our customers cannot pay any price for our cells,” admits Mr. Therrien.
Furthermore, it is not certain that Northvolt will publicly reveal the identity of its suppliers, for reasons linked to competition.
At Investissement Québec (IQ), we are convinced that the battery chain and that of critical and strategic minerals (MCS) can integrate a large number of Quebec players. “One of the main reasons why these factories come to settle in Quebec is the presence of MCS,” indicates Jean-François Béland, vice-president at Ressources Québec, a branch of IQ.
Between enthusiasm and caution
It is not possible to force private companies to choose local suppliers. However, there is a way to influence them, believes Mr. Béland, in particular through equity investments. For example, IQ owns 50% of the shares of Nemaska Lithium and 10% of those of Nouveau Monde Graphite, he points out.
“It’s an industry that comes together,” also believes Mr. Béland, citing the fact that several companies are neighbors within the Bécancour industrial park.
A long-time promoter of a battery industry in Quebec, Karim Zaghib, professor of chemical and materials engineering at Concordia University, also believes that many ingredients from Quebec will be used in the manufacture of batteries in the medium term. “Here, there are natural resources, green energy, human capital, geopolitical stability,” he says.
Professor of extractive metallurgy of critical and strategic elements, Jean-François Boulanger is a little more cautious. “It would be a feat for all the minerals to be available and from a Quebec source by the time the Northvolt plant comes into operation,” he says.
According to this professor from the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, it is desirable to avoid an international intermediary having control of an important part of the production chain, which would allow him in particular to control the price. He recalls that China remains a major link for several of these metals, notably lithium.
One thing is certain, the number of mining companies likely to offer their services to this sector is increasing. Announcements of concrete industrial projects, such as that of Northvolt, but also those of Ford and General Motors in Bécancour, are stimulating an increase in exploration for critical and strategic metals, according to Alain Poirier, project director at the Association of mining exploration in Quebec. The joint action plan between Canada and the United States for collaboration in this area has also had this effect.
“The market is truly North American. Minerals from here can be used here, but they may be sent to other provinces or to the United States, because it will meet a specific need,” says Mr. Poirier.
However, we will have to be patient, because today’s exploration projects will potentially only materialize in 10 or 15 years.