The proliferation of electric vehicles and other battery systems has precipitated a rapid increase in demand for battery metals such as cobalt, nickel, and lithium. Much of the cobalt refining and supply chain is concentrated geographically in Asia. This has highlighted an opportunity to diversify the supply chain by developing cobalt refining capacity in North America. Due to the nature of processing cobalt, the location of the refinery directly impacts the capital efficiency of the design as well as the long-term operating costs.
Considerations for site selection
When selecting the location for the refinery, multiple variables should be considered as the combined outcome greatly impacts the ability to maximize project value. Questions to ask, and factors to consider, include:
- Does a market exist for by-products?
- What are the requirements for effluent discharge?
- What is the environmental, social and community context?
- What are the properties of the local water source?
- What is the cost and source of power?
- Is the location near suppliers and end users?
- What is the availability of skilled labor?
Does a market exist for by-products?
The by-products produced from refining cobalt can have economic value if a suitable market exists. In a typical operating environment, sodium sulphate or ammonium sulphate is produced and can be crystallized and sold as a chemical additive and fertilizer respectively if the economics are favorable. Understanding the required specifications of the by-product is key, as this can further affect refinery design.
Where a suitable market does not exist or where initial capital is a constraint, the by-products may be discharged as an effluent stream to forego the cost and power requirements of processes such as crystallization. Environmental requirements in the location of interest must be understood to ensure that this is permissible and may also constrain reagent selection.
What are the requirements for effluent discharge?
Depending on the regulatory context and the receiving waterbody, achieving the required effluent quality (pH, TSS, TDS etc.) may have a significant impact on the refinery design. Discharge requirements for coastal locations may be less stringent than for freshwater and result in lower capital and operating costs.
What is the environmental, social, and community context?
Consultation requirements and the ability to gain a social licence to operate need to be considered alongside any economic evaluations when selecting a suitable location. Framing project development as one of equal partnership between your company and the community is critical. Early and open communication with local stakeholders is key to aligning economic and environmental objectives, especially those related to effluent treatment and discharge.
What are the properties of the local water source?
Depending on the refining process and the target product specifications, pre-treatment of freshwater through filtration or demineralization may be needed to prevent product contamination. In addition, the presence of elements such as chlorine can drive material selection for crystallizers and other process equipment.
What is the cost and source of power?
Unit operations such as electrowinning, evaporation, electrodialysis, and crystallization are major power consumers. The cost of power drives equipment trade-offs, such as the selection of mechanical versus thermal vapor re-compression (MVR or TVR) crystallizers.
Power requirements should be evaluated in relation to the capacity of local supply infrastructure. Through early engagement with local utilities you can identify if infrastructure upgrades (and consequently, significant capital investment) are needed. Long term supply contracts can reduce the operating costs associated with power and fuels. The availability of renewable energy sources should also be considered, as minimizing carbon intensity is an important consideration for the EV battery supply chain.
Is the location near suppliers and end users?
Supply chain management of feed material, reagents, and products is critical to the continuous operation of a cobalt refinery. As most intermediate cobalt feed materials are produced overseas, locating the facility close to a port or rail siding reduces trucking costs. The location of end-users is also important to consider, both for products and potential by-products. Reducing the freight costs and logistical requirements is a priority as on-site storage can introduce further capital costs.
What is the availability of skilled labor?
The operation of hydrometallurgical processes and complex technology requires skilled operators, maintenance personnel, and technicians. The availability and cost of the local workforce impacts the level of automation required and the associated capital cost.1
Selecting a refinery location requires a holistic view of the factors affecting project value. An optimal location allows the design to be cost efficient by unlocking the value of by-product streams and minimizing effluent treatment requirements. Considering the proximity of feed, reagents, and power providers minimizes the onsite storage requirements and price of the required commodities.
Case Study: The First Cobalt Refinery Restart
In Q2, 2020 Ausenco completed the feasibility study for the restart of a 5,000 tonne per year cobalt sulphate refinery located in northeastern Ontario, Canada. The economics of the project were both complemented and constrained by the location of the refinery, but overall produced a strong financial result.
The key considerations are summarized as follows:
For more information on capital efficient cobalt refinery design, contact Thomas Mills.
- Peek, E., T. Åkre & Asselin, E. (2009). Technical and Business Considerations of Cobalt Hydrometallurgy. Journal of the Minerals, Metals & Material Society 61 (10): 43-53.