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Rock Tech advances plans for Thunder Bay-area lithium refinery

Developer BMI to invest over $5M, take stake in Red Rock industrial project

A rendering of the planned Red Rock lithium refinery in northern Ontario. (Courtesy Rock Tech Lithium Inc.)

Plans to convert a former paper mill in northern Ontario into a lithium refinery have been finalized between Canadian companies Rock Tech Lithium Inc. (RCK-X) and BMI Group after a North America-wide search for a site.

The refinery will be located at an approximately 50-acre site in Red Rock, Ont., which the company hopes will be capable of processing 36,000 tonnes of lithium at full capacity. Some of the ore will be sourced from the company’s own mine, according to Konstantin Deichsel, head of strategy and business innovation at Rock Tech.

“We are quite proud that we are bringing back industry to the area with a process that is much greener, that has a much brighter outlook into the future because if we want to decarbonize the global economy, we’re gonna need lithium in one way or shape or form or the other for decades, if not centuries to come,” Deichsel said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada.

“We believe with our investment we can help bring back prosperity to the Township of Red Rock and the surrounding towns from Thunder Bay all the way to Greenstone and beyond.”

To kickstart the Red Rock site, Tillsonburg, Ont.-based industrial and commercial property developer BMI will be investing $5.5 million in the project approximately 110 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, near the shores of Nipigon Bay.

A German-Canadian cleantech company

Though headquartered in Toronto, Rock Tech’s leadership is largely German. Formerly called Rock Tech Resources Inc., the company was renamed in 2010 following a shift in direction from minerals exploration to lithium.

CEO Dirk Harbecke, a journalist-turned-business-executive who has been with the company since 2014, directed the company into mining and refining under his leadership, according to Deichsel.

From 2020 to 2021, the company identified the bottleneck in the lithium supply chain as a conversion problem – refining lithium ores into the lithium chemicals that can be used to make cathodes and batteries. To address this, Rock Tech is building a 125,750-square-metre refinery in Guben, Germany, with plans to produce battery-grade lithium hydroxide by 2026.

It is one of five lithium converters Rock Tech has designs for in North America and Europe. Red Rock is its second publicized project and will draw on the company's experience from Germany.

A major asset for Rock Tech is its Georgia Lake lithium mine 60 kilometres north of the Red Rock site.

The Red Rock project

In 2023, Rock Tech’s search for locations in Michigan and Ontario was narrowed down to Sudbury and Red Rock. After speaking to BMI, Rock Tech was convinced to choose Red Rock because of the proximity to the mine, the fact it did not require rezoning because it is a brownfield site, the presence of a railway that could be reconnected to the site, and an abundance of clean electricity.

Spodumene will be processed into pure chemical lithium at full-scale production exceeding its German counterpart. Compared to the refinery in Guben, the Red Rock site may produce up to 50 per cent more lithium, Deichsel said. The exact size of the Red Rock refinery is undecided, but Deichsel said it will be in the hundreds of thousands of square feet.

Rock Tech’s Georgia Lake mine may supply 30 to 50 per cent of the feedstock for the refinery, depending on its size, Deichsel added. Additional ore could be sourced from local Ontario mines or from Quebec.

To build out the logistical infrastructure, BMI will re-develop the rail network and port and upgrade the power lines to meet Red Rock’s needs. BMI’s $5.5-million investment will result in the developer taking a stake in Red Rock and a long-term loan.

Rock Tech expects to create around 200 permanent jobs at Red Rock and up to 1,000 construction jobs, Deichsel said.

The company anticipates Red Rock will need $1 billion to $1.5 billion in funding between 2024 and 2028. Construction is planned for completion in 2028 with production also possibly starting in the same year.

Rock Tech in a release claims the facility will be Ontario's first lithium refinery, however another company, Avalon Advanced Materials Inc., also has plans to refine lithium in the Thunder Bay area.

Ensuring a sustainable refinery

To minimize environmental and health impacts, Rock Tech will consider a range of solutions, Deichsel explained.

“Spodumene is a very inert material, which in terms of mining is very good,” because most of the refining will require physical steps like grinding, crushing and gravity-based separation of lithium from rock, rather than heavy use of hazardous chemicals.

The waste material from lithium processing has attracted interest from construction companies, which want to explore its use as a sustainable cement replacement, Deichsel said.

Compared to the site's previous use, the Norampac Paper Mill that used approximately 500,000 cubic metres of water per week, the lithium refinery will use the same volume in a year.

The off-gases from production will be filtered, to reducing potential odour and pollution.

Next steps are engineering studies to determine shovel readiness, which Rock Tech expects to be finished by the end of 2025. Rock Tech expects to raise $30 million to $40 million by then, which would ready the company for industrial-scale funding deployment.

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