Quebec Does Not Want to Miss the Strategic Minerals Train

By Hugo Lavallee for Radio Canada
Jonatan Julien, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Photo: Radio-Canada / Sylvain Roy Roussel

Used in the manufacture of batteries, electronic devices, or even medical equipment, these minerals come largely from Asia today.

François Legault’s government will invest $ 90 million over the next five years to stimulate the exploitation and processing of critical and strategic minerals in Quebec.

Ultimately, what we want in my strategic plan is to increase investments. But we want value-added investments in Quebec, not an investment where we come to exploit a deposit for the outside world. Exploit a deposit, transform [by creating] added value, and recycle, said the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Jonatan Julien, in an interview with Radio-Canada.

The government wants to better map the resources available to Quebec, promote its mineral potential internationally, and develop environmental management tools. He especially wishes to support research and development in the extraction, processing, and recycling of critical and strategic minerals.

Critical and strategic minerals should not be seen as an exploitation of a traditional deposit. We have to work on the whole chain. We must not forget the deposit. But the great added value for Quebec is processing and recycling, and processing means [calling on] cutting-edge expertise. It is our strength in Quebec. We do not have the strength of numbers, but we have that of expertise and it is in the transformation that we will get there, argues Minister Julien.

Examples of critical and strategic minerals:

  • cobalt
  • lithium
  • graphite
  • niobium
  • titanium
  • vanadium
  • rare earth elements

Source: Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources

Strong growth in demand

Over the next few years, demand for some critical and strategic minerals will quintuple, according to projections from the Department of Energy and Natural Resources. The latter will be fueled in particular by the electrification of the economy, promoted by a large number of States in their post-pandemic economic recovery plan.

Evolution of demand for certain critical and strategic minerals by 2050

  • Cobalt: + 460%
  • Lithium: + 488%
  • Graphite: + 494%

Source: Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources

The government is also anticipating an exponential increase in the number of electric cars. Currently, approximately 80,000 of these vehicles are on the roads of Quebec, a number that should reach one million by 2030. Growth should be of the same order internationally.

Already, we have to think about how we will recycle these minerals once these cars have reached the end of their life. Today, lithium recycling is not that important, but it is certain that it will become major […] If we do not position ourselves in Quebec now […] we will miss the train when the time will come when the market will be more mature, and things will go very quickly, argues the minister.

Towards the end of a “certain hypocrisy”?

At the moment, much of the critical and strategic minerals used in North America, such as rare earth elements, come from Asia, where operating conditions are not always optimal.

It is a political choice. In the 1980s, considering the environmental and social costs associated with production, most countries withdrew from production and China made a political choice to invest heavily in this production, says Thomas Pabst, a professor in the Department of civil, geological and mining engineering at Polytechnique Montreal.

According to him, Quebec, with its strict environmental standards, could stand out on the international scene. Until now, we have lived in certain hypocrisy in relation to these new technologies that are said to be cleaner, less polluting: electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels … But behind all that, it requires these famous strategic minerals which, at the time of their production, are in fact extremely polluting. So all we have done using these new clean technologies is to relocate the pollution, argues Professor Pabst.

Knowledge to acquire

For Georges Beaudoin, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at Laval University, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources does well to invest in improving its knowledge.

The government is making mapping efforts in the northern regions, but the territory is very vast and there are still many years to come to reach a level of knowledge that could be comparable to that which we have in southern Quebec, for example in Abitibi, he argues.

He adds that there is also a lot to learn about recycling minerals, as the chemistry behind some compounds becomes more complex. Manufacturers use different processes or different assemblies, so there is a lot of variation in the nature of the material to be recycled, which makes it very difficult.

According to him, there is no time to waste: technological tools evolve rapidly, and the minerals necessary for their manufacture change. A few years ago, lithium batteries were not the battery of choice, but the density that we are able to put in these batteries today means that it is the most efficient type to transport the battery. ‘energy. But there is nothing that tells us that someone is not going to discover in five years another recipe that is going to be even more miraculous and maybe there will be no more need for lithium, concludes Professor Beaudoin, stressing that the mining industry meets a need. She does not create it.

Across the country, critical and strategic mineral deposits have been discovered in Ontario and British Columbia, but these provinces have not yet developed a policy specifically dedicated to them.

Some applications of critical and strategic minerals:

  • batteries and energy storage
  • electronic appliances
  • medical equipment
  • aerospace components

This article is translated from the French version.

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