Canada Nickel Company Inc. (CNC-X), a Toronto-based mining company, says it is working to perfect a process that it claims could store eight times the amount of carbon the company's Northern Ontario mine would create from its nickel-cobalt mining operations.
At its flagship Crawford nickel-cobalt project north of Timmins, Ont., Canada Nickel is developing what CEO Mark Selby says will be one of the largest nickel-sulphide mines in the world, containing over five million tonnes of nickel.
An engineering study conducted as part of a test project determined that while producing a tonne of nickel would create 2.5 tonnes of carbon emissions, Canada Nickel's process to store carbon in the remaining rocks could store up to 20 tonnes of the greenhouse gas per tonne of nickel.
It has completed a pilot using its carbon storage technique called in-process tailings (IPT) carbonation, showcasing its potential for commercialization.
“This is a first for any mining company,” Selby said in an interview with SustainableBiz. “A number of companies have looked at passive tailings pick-up, but no one else has looked at basically integrating it into the processing plant and having that as an integral part of the project designs.
Digging into carbon capture
At the Crawford project, Canada Nickel aims to service the electric-vehicle battery industry, which is hungry for metals like nickel and cobalt. Selby said the expectation is to produce over 40,000 tonnes of nickel per year across 20 mining projects.
Selby is a nickel mining veteran who served in executive positions at Inco Limited and Royal Nickel Corp. At Royal Nickel’s nickel-cobalt Dumont project, he looked for ways to measure carbon dioxide naturally locked away by ultramafic rocks in a process called passive tailings carbonation.
Ultramafic rocks absorb and store carbon dioxide by transforming into magnesite when exposed to the greenhouse gas.
Shortly after leaving Royal Nickel, he was approached by an individual who discovered a site north of Timmins geologically similar to Dumont. This time, the interest in carbon capture and storage was far more prominent.
“In today’s environment, it’s a very, very different game,” Selby said. “So, when I was approached to take a look at Crawford and advancing it, it was a no-brainer, given the carbon capture and storage potential of the deposit.”
Canada Nickel looked into the possibility of sequestering carbon dioxide in mine tailings at a lab in Sudbury in July 2022.
A stream of carbon dioxide flowing into mine tailings was left over a weekend to inject over 10 times more carbon dioxide than the rocks could theoretically hold. To the team’s surprise, when they returned the following Monday, what would take months or years for passive storage ended up happening in a few days.
Dubbed IPT carbonation, Canada Nickel had found a business opportunity to take streams of carbon dioxide and sequester it away.
The carbon storage trial
At its pilot facility, the ultramafic tailings were stored in tanks and exposed to a concentrated stream of carbon dioxide for approximately six hours before being shipped away for long-term storage.
More than seven tonnes of tailings were processed during the pilot, which was conducted to confirm the parameters for an integrated feasibility study expected to be released on Oct. 12 to demonstrate its commercialization potential.
IPT carbonation would store more than 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of nickel, heavily offsetting emissions from Canada Nickel's mining operations.
“In terms of our project’s total contribution to the environment, we’re at a very large net-negative number, which is a very exciting place to be in in terms of helping the environment with critical minerals and helping with carbon storage,” according to Selby.
Creating a carbon storage business
Selby said the Crawford project makes a zero-carbon industrial cluster near Timmins a possibility by tapping into the ultramafic rocks, hydroelectricity and existing infrastructure.
Canada Nickel is currently receiving permits for a mining project, which Selby expects to secure by mid-2025.
If all goes well, he said a carbon-capture facility could operate by the end of 2027 with a single line to handle 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, and then be doubled by the 2030s to store over one million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
Canada Nickel believes there is a possibility of up to 20 million tonnes of carbon storage per year.
Based on a consultant’s estimate, Selby said Canada Nickel could charge a minimum of $25 per tonne of captured carbon.
“We’re quite confident that as carbon pricing goes up and emitters really start to get serious about removing their carbon emissions, we’ll play a key role in that and be a very safe, permanent source of carbon storage for the market,” the CEO said.
Canada Nickel will be seeking federal and provincial government support and “substantial” private sector capital funding for integrating IPT carbonation at the Crawford project.
Selby highlighted the value of the refundable tax credit for carbon capture, for which he believes the project will be eligible.
He is open to partnering with carbon-capture firms and said large North American entities have approached Canada Nickel for carbon storage facilities.
In addition to powering cleaner transportation, Canada Nickel is also prioritizing cleaner mining techniques, using electrical equipment over diesel-powered tools and capturing the greenhouse gas emissions from the mining process.