Tucked up in a remote corner of northwestern Ontario, Frontier Lithium and president-CEO Trevor Walker are sitting on one of the largest, highest grade and mine-ready lithium projects in North America.
The Sudbury-based exploration company has two massive spodumene-bearing lithium deposits about 175 kilometres north of Red Lake, near the Manitoba border. And there’s tons of potential to develop it into a district scale-sized operation.
Within hours of Walker presenting at the BEV In Depth: Mines to Mobility conference in Sudbury on May 31, Frontier rolled out an ambitious prefeasibility study of the open-ended possibilities of its PAK Project, south of Sandy Lake First Nation.
Always with an eye on becoming a vertically integrated producer to serve the North American electric vehicle industry, Frontier’s study is putting forth a US$1.6-billion open-pit mine and mill on their 27,000-hectare property along with a separate hydrometallurgical chemical plant that would convert milled lithium concentrate into lithium hydroxide.
The total project life is 24 years. Ongoing exploration at PAK shows there’s more lithium to last for decades more.
As delegates at the BEV conference heard this week, the race is on to source domestic supplies of critical minerals to feed the North American battery ecosystem.
Despite all the PAK Project’s promise, there’s one stumbling block in Frontier’s path to production.
There’s currently no all-season road to haul the company’s lithium concentrate out of the isolated mine site down the highway into a processing plant. The project is accessible by air and seasonal winter roads.
But roads need to be carved out of the bush, a critical bridge across the Berens River needs to constructed, and Ottawa needs to come to the table to fund the infrastructure.
Walker has often said during online presentations with investors and analysts that Frontier has a great story to tell and he feels they are undervalued compared to some of their industry peers with smaller, lower grade projects.
But in an interview with Northern Ontario Business, he acknowledges the lack of infrastructure is hindering them from unlocking the full potential of a viable project that has the legs to last multiple generations.
If their pair of deposits were located off the Trans-Canada Highway, Walker said there’s a good chance they would already be in production.
Considered a top tier resource, Frontier’s two exceptional spodumene-bearing lithium deposits, slugged PAK and Spark, have a combined 26-million-tonne measured and indicated resource, averaging 1.62 per cent lithium oxide, that outcrops at surface. Located two kilometres apart, both are suitable for open-pit mining.
Spodumene is the preferred and widely used lithium because of its high lithium content. Pegmatite is the typical host for finding lithium, and there’s plenty of it at PAK.
The prefeasibility study confirmed to Frontier that PAK could be this continent’s largest and lowest cost producer of lithium hydroxide, the much-coveted battery-grade material that’s in demand by battery and car-makers like LG Energy Solution, Stellantis, Umicore and Volkswagen, now setting up battery plants in southern Ontario.
Frontier also revealed this week that they plan to place a lithium chemical pilot plant west of Sudbury to test-drive the proprietary processing technology that they’ve been developing for years.
Walker is hopeful the prefeasibility study is the trigger to kickstart discussions with strategic financing project partners that lead toward signing offtake agreements with customers in the EV space.
In a way, the PAK Project, with its stranded deposits and no permanent road, is almost like a smaller version of the Ring of Fire.
But unlike the drama of the nickel and chromite play 500 kilometres to the east, Walker said they maintain solid and supportive relationships with the neighbouring Oji-Cree communities of Treaty 5 in whose traditional lands they operate.
The winter road season only lasts two to six weeks a year. The 10,000 people in the seven communities of Pikangikum, Deer Lake, Keewaywn, McDowell Lake, North Spirit, Poplar Hill and Sandy Lake want better road access to lower the cost of living and improve the well-being of their communities.
The communities have a Berens River road and bridge website to provide members with project updates as part of their road-planning exercise that involves a federally funded scoping study.
Most of the proposed road is permitted, said Walker. Government just needs to come to the table with the cheque to begin construction.
“We’re pretty excited to essentially have three-quarters of the distance to our project that’s fully permitted and awaiting funding.”
Walker mentioned Pikangikum, 100 kilometres north of Red Lake, would like to see permanent roads built to access valuable forest resources in the area and move logs to market.
He couldn’t speak to the eventual road ownership model, since their focus is on exploration, but they have a keen interest in seeing the Berens River Bridge built, which he calls a logistics “bottleneck.”
In 2019, Indigenous Services Canada directed $1.4 million toward the design of a two-lane, 194-metre span across the Berens River, which flows into Lake Winnipeg, and sits at the end of the all-season road north of Red Lake.
The design for a $25-million engineered timber bridge is in and the wait is on for Ottawa to deliver funding, hopefully by 2024, to start bridge construction over a two-year period.
The route will likely follow the Watay power line corridor to reduce the environmental footprint on the land.
Walker said supplying power into the mine certainly won’t be a problem as they have the luxury of being close to the Watay power project. It’s a region-wide Indigenous-led construction project that will connect 17 remote communities to the Ontario grid for the first time.
Walker said the towers have been erected and the power lines already strung. The line is scheduled to be energized by 2024.
As Frontier moves closer to a production decision, there will be impact benefit agreements with the communities to be signed.
Given the global EV demand for raw material, Walker views PAK as a convergence project that combines Truth and Reconciliation principles that allows Indigenous people to participate in supplying the essential critical minerals from the North to feed the gigafactories in the South.
“We think we sit in a great position to help the communities and create job opportunities and a better future with our project.”
With the prefeasibility out, one of Frontier’s next steps is to find a home for a commercial-scale lithium chemical plant.
Over the years, Frontier has spent millions on developing a proprietary lithium extraction process in conjunction with Glencore’s XPS Expert Processing Solutions in Sudbury. Now it’s time to expand beyond the mini-pilot plant stage to the demonstration plant scale.
Walker expects to be have a small chemical plant operating within 12 months on a company-owned property in Hyman-Nairn Township, west of Sudbury. The company is applying to the province for an air and noise permit.
“In mining and chemical production, it’s always best to walk before you run.”
The roughly 50-tonne-per-year facility would allow them to fine-tune their process, help in their future equipment procurement, provide samples to potential customers, and serve as a facility training ground for a future workforce at a large-scale commercial plant.
“Sudbury could be a possible location,” said Walker, with its ample population and industrial supply base. The city’s greatest drawback is the lack of easy access to a Great Lakes port.
The company leaning toward floating the finished lithium hydroxide to EV battery manufacturers in southern Ontario and northern U.S.
On its investor presentation slide deck, Frontier identifies Thunder Bay and Duluth, Minn. as possible chemical plant sites.
Given the billions in government investments in downstream EV manufacturing, Walker said he’s confident that the spending largess will eventually shaft northward to upstream producers to support mid-level critical minerals processing, of which none exists in Ontario.