When you visit a foreign country, it’s often a smart move to start by getting the basics of language and culture. That’s our agenda for today: let us break down the fundamentals of lithium processes!
Find out more with my entire Lithium deep dive.
with 🎙️ Tony Strobbe – EV supply chain Projects Director
💧 Every Monday, Tony compiles a dedicated content piece he shares on LinkedIn that covers one aspect of that said supply chain
What we covered:
⚡ How there are no electric vehicles without batteries, no batteries without lithium, and no lithium without some kind of mining, hence you have to build a supply chain
🤝 How the closer you are to your customer, the higher the margins for your product, and the consequences this has on the lithium mining vertical
📉 How car manufacturers could well end up being left without lithium if they donc tackle the challenge seriously
2️⃣ How there are two ways to approach the vertical, from the bottom and from the top and where those two paths cross and meet
💰 How the large lithium companies currently “printing money” have two paths to continue doing so, and which one is probably the best for them
🛠️ What are the material requirements to process one ton of spodumene and turn it into battery-grade lithium carbonate or hydroxide
💧 How ESG considerations will impact the lithium value chain today and tomorrow
🧮 What parameters to consider when conceiving and building a lithium refinery and where to ideally locate it
🌍 How geopolitics and history shape the current and future lithium markets
😈 How there may well be a Powerpoint path to lithium equilibrium, but how the devil lies in the execution
🍲 How DLE deals with a hot soup, and how this comes with its own challenges
🚢 Lithium offer and demand, high prices solving high prices, the shelf life of Lithium Hydroxide, shipping spodumene across the World, extracting as much value as possible locally, lithium from new sources… and much more!
🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥
🔗 Come say hi to Tony on Linkedin
is on Linkedin ➡️
Infographic: Lithium 1011646497_Lithium-Simple-Slider_052223
Table of contents
These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂
Get Season 2's Summary!
Antoine Walter: Hi Tony. Welcome to the show.
Tony Strobbe: Hello, how are you?
Antoine Walter: Well, excited . I’m really excited about the conversation we’re about to have for many reasons, because I think you are filling a void within my series on the lithium world, value chain, whatever you want to call it, but also because I’m usually opening this show with a postcard and you’re sending a postcard from Mexico, and I really don’t know anything.
I never was to Mexico. So what can you tell me about Mexico that I would ignore by now?
Tony Strobbe: Well, Mexico, like you say it’s a beautiful country. I like being here, that’s for sure. It’s also an exciting country because it’s not like Europe where the companies are already settled. It’s basically still Evolving, let’s say certainly in the lithium industry.
But I’m sure we’ll talk about it later.
Antoine Walter: Well, actually, if I can be curious to start with, if I’m right you’re, you’re from Belgium, so how do you end up in Mexico?
Tony Strobbe: Ooh, long story. But basically if you look at my story since I was young, I was very interested in the world around me.
When I was 10, for instance, I remember spending my Sunday mornings at my grandma house and basically right across the street there was an industrial laundry. I really like to go in there and look at the machinery. The machinery were turning around in hot steam very noisy. The machines were running without interference of people. I would say that’s also where it started my interest in machinery, in productions. And basically when I was 15, I had to choose my education.
It was 1984, long time ago. I know. But that was also when the computers came up, so that was a technology that was really new. I know for some of your readers, they will not understand that a world without computers is actually possible, but that was my youth without computers. But that first year the computers came around is also the first year that actually computer technology classes were introduced. So I went to follow computer technology.
And after my computer technology I went further and go in my engineering degree where I started electrical and mechanical engineering. Now, directly after my studies, I was able to join the firm where I did my thesis. And basically for my these I had to develop a machine that actually Tested tires under a specific load, forklift tires. And when I started working, they asked me to build a machine and actually to implement it in their plant in Sri Lanka.
So I went to Sri Lanka and built a plant there. When I did that actually I always continued to look for Projects like that because I liked it so much. And that’s actually how the ball starts is rolling, I would say
Antoine Walter: so you got attracted to this word of building and starting up factories.
Tony Strobbe: yes. And also, basically I’m very curious about everything that goes around me. , Curious about places in the world, but also curious about something new, something exciting that I don’t know about. That’s what I like.
Antoine Walter: So something which you wouldn’t know about, I guess a couple years ago, and that’s my transition to lithium might have been this word of electric vehicles. So what got you into this topic?
Tony Strobbe: Well, like I say, I was interested in a lot of things. I started with computer technology and then internet came in the late nineties. Then basically at uh, around 2010, electric vehicles came with the rise of Tesla. And quite frankly, it interest me a lot. So I start learning about it, reading about it, and , in 2020, as we all know, the world changed a bit and I certainly had a lot of time on my hands. what I did was I start. Deep diving. , like, you say deep diving in the world of lithium and electric vehicle supply chain, actually, and I still do that at the moment. So that’s how I started.
Antoine Walter: well, you are making me the smoothest of all transitions towards the deep dive because what caught my attention first in you’re sharing and you’re sharing a lot of lithium related content on your LinkedIn feed is you are sharing a map of Europe with few points. And saying basically, it’s great to have a plan to develop gigga factories.
It’s great to have a plan towards electric vehicles, but it sounds like we are missing a link in the chain, which is the lithium refineries. So what’s the problem there and what is the biggest challenge Europe would have to overcome with regards to those refine.
Tony Strobbe: In my view, the biggest challenge now to overcome is basically the EV supply chain in europe but also in the states is really in, in the baby shoes. I mean, there is not much as you stated It all happens in Asia and China for the moment, but that’s changing rapidly.
They started with the push to electric vehicles, but you don’t have electric vehicles without batteries. You don’t have lithium batteries. Without lithium, you don’t have lithium without mining. So you need to start up that whole supply chain, basically what you have now, the biggest challenge in Europe and also in the US is getting started, it’s. CapEx heavy industry. So there’s a lot of money that needs to be invested , in an industry that not much people understand.
So you have a little bit of wild west, you have the big names like Volkswagen all known. They have really good experience, but you have also a lot of gold diggers in the field that say, okay, let’s start up a battery factory company it can’t be that difficult, right? And we see where it goes. Well, sometime it go good, sometime it goes bad. So that’s a little bit the issue we have right now.
Antoine Walter: So what happens when it goes bad? I’ve seen you covering quite extensively the British Volt story, so I guess that’s an example of it
Tony Strobbe: Yes. British Volt is going bad. I knew that from the beginning. I was interested in British Volt from the beginning 2019. They don’t have a product, they don’t have a supply chain set up, so they don’t know where the raw materials need to come from. They don’t have customers, they don’t have money, and quite frankly, they don’t have the expertise of building a plant like that and running it. But they want money.
So me as an investor. Okay, what can go wrong? A lot. I think. It was from the beginning. It was a no-brainer for me. I tried to explain that but eventually chose another way and they said, no, we going, gonna do it by ourselves. Well, with, well, the results we have right?
Antoine Walter: So, so that’s this battery word, which is usually the one which gets the light. I mean, you hear about the Giga factories, you hear about those projects, and Europe has been quite bragging about how fast it’s developing. Its battery production. The next link in the chain the one I was mentioning in the beginning.
So this refining. Maybe also the lithium extraction is something which is fully lost to the specialist. I mean, if you’re a specialist you know about it. If you’re a layman, that is a foreign World. So is it a topic where people should be diving in and do decision makers dive in sufficiently, or do they just take it for granted when it’s not?
Tony Strobbe: For the last years, I think it was taken for granted and said, okay, it will happen. But quite frankly the OEMs the car manufacturers, let’s say they see it’s not happening and because the money isn’t there.
That’s a little bit the issue and what you’re seeing right now is it’s obvious that the mining industry let’s start first with where the margin is made, the closer you get to a customer. The bigger the margins is of your product you make. So it makes sense for a mining company that actually produces spodumene which lithium is derived from. To go into lithium refining, you see that. You also see that with companies like Li Vent, Albemarle. SQM, the big players in the mining industry.
What you will not see is actually the car manufacturers going back in the chain and developing batteries. The battery manufacturer developing lithium refineries and going back, because quite frankly, if they have a hundred million to invest, it’s better to invest in something that is closer to the end customer than farther away from the customer.
Now I hear you thinking, all right. That’s not correct because Volkswagen has actually invested heavily in Northvolt for instance. Northvolt is a giga factory operator. And NorthVolt is investing heavily in Aurora with makes with startup lithium refinery in So what is happening over there?
Well, they don’t want to invest, but they have to because a car manufacturing without the batteries, you have a nice , car plant, but basically you have no raw materials to build cars. So that’s a little bit what they say. Hang on, we need to do something and we need to help build up that supply chain in order for us to be able to make electric vehicles.
And that’s what you see with Volkswagen, investing in NorthVolt, investing in Aurora, and so on.
Antoine Walter: there’s a lot , to unpack in what you just said. It makes me think of, I think 50 or 60 years ago, Ford was investing in rubber plantations because they found out that they couldn’t build the tires they needed, so they had to go upstream. And the example of Volkswagen is interesting.
One might say it’s the great direction. What you might also say, it’s a bit late to move into that because everybody talks about the lithium supply chain issue, which is gonna last over the next decade. So at some points there won’t be lithium for everybody. But Volkswagen’s made the move.
What about the Tesla of this word, which maybe didn’t go upstream yet?
Tony Strobbe: That’s an interesting question. And it’s hard to look in the mind of a guy like Elon Musk because he’s a special guy. I mean, he does things that’s no others, more let’s say traditional entrepreneur does.
So I don’t know what will happen, but basically I think , he will be very hesitant to move into the market of mining because quite frankly, if you look into the supply chain and you start from the first step mining it’s bulk material handling.
Lithium refining is also pretty much bulk material handling, so they’re very common. Although lithium refining is more specialty chemicals part of the industry, but it’s also bulk materials.
Now, if you go a step further and do battery manufacturing, the first step of battery manufacturing where you actually make the electrodes, you mix up materials and that’s also bulk material handling.
The second step of battery manufacturing, when you have the anodes and the cathodes and basically you roll them up and you start packing them. It’s more pick and place. It’s more like a car, manufacturing assembly line, and then the car manufacture is also assembly line, of course.
So you have a pretty. Obvious for me divide somewhere in the battery. So basically what you’re seeing is mining will go into lithium refining, but not so much in battery manufacturing. While car manufacturing might go into battery manufacturing, but not further down to lithium refining because it’s a different ball game. And I think Tesla Mr. Musk also. Acknowledge that is basically it’s something completely weird for him. That’s what I think. On the other hand of the spectrum, after the car manufacturing, you have also the recycling, because that’s something we tend to forget. But also here we have the same, you have first you have the dismantling of the pack.
That’s automation, that’s pick and place pretty much close to what the car manufacturing does. And then you grind the modules up into a black mass whenever you have the black mass. Then it also, and it becomes back bulk match material handling. And that’s the circle supply chain we’d speak about.
Antoine Walter: so there are two types of knowhow. There’s the assembly and disassembly knowhow, which would start middle of the battery chain up to the car and then dismantle the battery again. And you have this chemical play, which is from mining up to refining up to the electrolyte and the first step of battery.
If I look at the numbers today The biggest lithium supplier in the world is Australia. I mean, they are mining the spodumene, and then only 5% of the spodumene in the world is refined in Australia. So the big chunk goes in ships and goes to China to get refined. I’ve looked, that’s the beauty of having publicly traded companies.
I’ve looked up the quarterly reports of Albermarle, Pilbara, and all these big players. And over the past year they’ve basically been printing money. They have incredible EBITDA Is it the right time for them to go that step up in the value chain and to say: we have money in our hands so we can finance the CapEx. Let’s go into Refining!
Tony Strobbe: Well, I think there’s no better time than today. Actually, the better time was yesterday. For them, quite frankly. You say Albermarle, SQM, Ganfe ng and Tianxi, that’s are the other two big ones. Basically they have cash.
Everybody know that and they are pretty much the only ones that have cash enough to take up an undertaking like that. Free on hand cash, so they don’t need to borrow a lot. They have two options in my view that basically open up another mine and mine more lithium, or like I said, go up into the supply chain. And add some value to the product they’re having right now. What you need to understand here is basically to open a lithium mine, it costs a lot of money.
Same like a refinery, but it takes a lot of years because the biggest problem they will have is actually to get the permitting done. To permit a mine, a new mine, it takes at least seven years more in the 15 years or something like that. To start up an open mine. So when you see that with the progress is going on right now into the EV, you see that basically 15 years. that’s a long time from now. And quite frankly, now is the time to go ahead in the ev in the electric vehicle supply chain. So when you have. Cash right now, it’s quicker to go in the lithium refining. And that’s what you’re seeing already.
There is a lithium refinery being built. Albemarle is going that way. That’s what you see.
Antoine Walter: you mentioned these timelines, but still hard rock mining is the section which moves the faster from the various ways to extract lithium. So when I started this deep dive into lithium, I was expecting mining to be almost something. Like the way we were doing in the nineties, but outdated.
And I was expecting that, evaporation pond and direct lithium extraction would be the real deal. And the more I look into it, the more it sounds I was absolutely wrong with that statement. It sounds like mining. Despite being slow, it’s still fast enough to be the right horse to bet on.
Whereas Evaporation Ponds, there’s still not one single gram of lithium produced in Bolivia, which just shows that it is not that straightforward to extract lithium from brine. So how can you explain this dichotomy?
Tony Strobbe: Well, basically, I mean, mining will be with us forever. If you need minerals from the ground, you need minerals from the ground how you get ’em out. For lithium would say, Evaporation ponds, that’s basically the cheapest method to get lithium. But it takes a long time.
I do not know if it makes economical sense because what you do is you pump up water from deep into the ground. You let it sit there for two years, 18 months, two years, and then you scoop it up and you have lithium, you refine it a bit. You change it a bit, the lithium chloride and then goes up to the supply chain. I think. mining is basically here to stay, to make it short. that’s my view.
Antoine Walter: you mentioned. Having the cash, the companies will go into this refining, and you mentioned how it is close enough for them to feel confident, but still there’s a difference between having. Big trucks and digging up the soil and running a chemical plant and refining lithium. So is it really that straightforward? Is there like a booklet which says how to build a spodumene refinery?
Or do you still need some technical deep know-how adapted to every kind of soil , or input?
Tony Strobbe: Well, the process of refining lithium and lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate is a well known process. They do it for 50 or 60 years, not supplying the. the. , Then, but basically lithium is also used in ceramics and glass and in a lot of other industries. So it’s a well known process.
The trick is basically you know the process, but for batteries, you need to have lithium, a hydroxide with a purity of 99.95%, not 99.5, but 99.95%. That’s a high purity. And basically, as we all know, what comes out is a function of what goes in. So if you need a high purity output, then you need to have a stable input. And that’s where the trick is. I mean, the difficulty is not , in producing lithium hydroxide, but the difficulty is producing lithium hydroxyde with that kind of purity all the time.
I mean, it’s a continuous process. So you have spodumene, but basically spodumene from . One mine is different from spodumene, from another mine. If you get your spodumene or your raw materials from a trader, Who knows, the tra mix different minings. So you will see that in, in your process and you will see that in the purity and also in the purity of the end product.
And that’s where it’s tricky and that’s a difference between mining and refining. Refining is very much process control. You need to be on top of your process. And if something changes a bit. I say humidity or the temperature changes a bit. You need to be able to adapt the process just a little bit to get that high purity.
Antoine Walter: Talking of that process, I’ve seen you decomposing that process into the various steps. Can we just take them step by step for the layman, so for me, so that we really get what we’re discussing here.
Tony Strobbe: Sure. I mean, the. first step is basically the calcination step. What you’re doing then is you get spodumene as a raw material, right? Spodumene concentrate, SC6. It’s called SC6. It’s basically the 6% is 6% lithium and 94%. Pretty much useless. I wouldn’t say completely useless. You still can sell it. But 94% rock.
Now the spodumene that comes in is called Alpha spodumene. And that needs to be transferred in the Beta spodumene. The reason for that is when you do calcination at high temperature 800 to 1050 degrees, what you’re doing is basically the volume increases of the spodumene alpha and the spodumene alpha transforms in the spodumene beta.
And that goes with the 30% volume increase. So the lithium that is hiding in all the crevices, in all the little holes, let’s say in the spodumene, the whole spodumene becomes bigger in volume, 30%, but also the holes become bigger. So it’s much easier to get the lithium out of the holes and you get more lithium out.
That’s why they do it. And that’s actually the first step. If you need to visualize the first step. The first step is actually a li, a big blow torch. Blowing natural gas. You burn natural gas into a kiln, and you heat up the, that’s one is basically that goes a little bit more onto that.
But for laymen, that’s what it’s.
Antoine Walter: Absolutely clear. So that’s step one.
Tony Strobbe: The second step, what you’re doing is now you have the lithium, you’re gonna roast it at temperatures at 250 degrees. You’re gonna roast the lithium, acid roasting it’s called, and with acid roasting, you going get lithium out of in a solution, let’s say. And you get, you extract the lithium.
Now what you do is with acid roasting, you extract the lithium , you dissolve the lithium, but also you dissolve the other minerals like magnesium, calcium impurities, I call them. And that’s basically the third step is, All of that removing the impurities.
You do that by water leeching oxidation, ion exchange… There are various steps in that. But basically the main thing is you get the impurities out. So you have lithium by the end.
Now the fourth step is basically the lithium is not , in solid form, so you need to get the water out. So you gonna dehydrate it. You need to crystallize it. So make solids out of it. And the crystallizing, because you have such a high purity, 99.95%, you need to crystallize it twice and after that you have lithium
Antoine Walter: I was reading henry Sanderson. I just wrote his book, Volt Rush. And in his book he mentions how to get one ton of lithium. You need two tons of coal. Here. It might be gas or it might be, it sounds like a fossil fuel intensive process.
Is that a concern?
Tony Strobbe: Well basically to process one ton of spodumene, you need 1.5 GigaJoule of natural gas, one GigaJoule of electricity, 24 tons of water, and half a ton of sulfuric acid and sodium ash.
So it’s quite energy intensive. Yes, that’s a concern. A lithium refinery, in addition to that process, the process generates a lot of inprocessed dust and has the potential of concentrating heavy metals in byproducts and waste. So environmental issues, yeah, you have it and you need to be concerned. About that.
That’s also a concern for the refineries, by the way, in general. Special chemicals facility has not only the bottom line to think about, but also their reputation. So basically that means the recuperation of materials, heat, water, chemicals, solid waste disposal instead of liquid waste disposal at both, it is a must economically, but also environmentally.
Antoine Walter: You mentioned this byproduct, these heavy metals and waste. How is it treat?
Tony Strobbe: Well, basically what they do is they make solid waste. Well, I hope they do it. I mean, the 18 refineries in Europe, I talk about at this point there’s only one. That will start operation by the end of this year and in 17 other ones, it’s still in planning phase, so I don’t know what they’re gonna do, but if they’re smart they take a good look at heat recuperation. They take a good look and water recuperation. And they take a really good looking waste disposal and they try to avoid liquid waste, but go into solid waste.
Antoine Walter: The reason why I’m asking is that when I was discussing with several of the experts, I got to speak for that deep dive, many mentioned me the importance of ESG and the importance of looking at the impact of the process. And I’ve seen that you shared an article about a way to trace the origin of lithium by looking at really the chemical characteristics.
And if now I try really to be mean and to be the devil’s advocate in a market where demands. Is far above supply. I fear that ESG will become an afterthought and whatever lithium you can get, you just get it.
Tony Strobbe: I share your concern there. But basically what I think is now that they get whatever lithium might get is fine enough. Yes, at this point. But it won’t stay that way. What you will see is the supply of lithium will catch up. The demand of lithium will go down because new chemistries will become available.
I’m sure about that. And at a certain point, I will be an equilibrium or even an oversupply. And then they will start to looking at that, I believe, I hope!
But yeah, for now it is a concern. I mean, they speak also a lot about the cobalt. As you well know, cobalt is coming from the Congo.
Where yeah, there are concerns environmental concerns, but all social concerns, and still they get the cobalt from the Congo. They don’t change that. There’s a reason for it. If the cobalt is in the Congo, the cobalt is in the Congo, I mean, what can you do?
You have a valid concern there. But quite frankly The thing we are having right now, I know the European Union is working on a battery passport which tracks all the raw materials and basically the life cycle from lithium mine, all the way to recycling. I think that’s a really step , in the right direction.
Antoine Walter: I’m just coming back to something you said before, which I, I took a note and I’d like to be sure I got it right to, to produce one ton of lithium, you need half a ton of sulfuric acid. Did I get that one right?
Tony Strobbe: To process one ton of spodumene. So it’s even it’s even less you get less lithium the half ton of sulfuric acid and sodium ash. But yeah, you have it right.
Antoine Walter: Because Giga Joules I get it. You get connected to the grid or you get connected to a pipe and you get it delivered. But to my knowledge, there’s no network of sulfuric acid. So, Does that mean it’s produced onsite or how is it done?
Tony Strobbe: I bet they buy it. I mean, how is it done now in the chemical industry, the chemicals you can’t produce on site basically you buy it and then, and you go from there.
Antoine Walter: Okay, so you have a gigantic supply of asset, which is..
Tony Strobbe: Sometimes that’s overlooked. The logistics are huge in a refinery. A typical refinery that produces 24,000 tons of lithium hydroxide a year. That’s basically one train. The logistics to get all the products in and out.
I mean, they are huge. There are, I would say, tens of thousands of trucks if you do it with trucks, tens of thousands of trucks. So you need to have a location close to your port so you can ship the spodumene or whatever you want to use in by ship. The best thing you need to have is basically a train to ship in the chemicals and so on and so, but yeah it’s a gigantic undertaking. Don’t underestimate it.
Antoine Walter: That’s a very good dot. You’re helping me connecting here because I was wondering, when I was reviewing this quarterly report from Albermarle, I think, or it was maybe SQM, one of the two and one of the. Fields they were looking into is doing road trains. Like it looks like a train, but it’s on the road. And I was wondering why is a mining company looking into transportation now?
It makes much more sense. And the other thing is I’ve been looking into 59. Project, which are in the pipeline of production at some point of lithium in the next 10 years. And I was surprised to see how they put on the same level, the richness in spodumene or the richness of their brine and the fact that they’re close to a road or close to a highway or to I mean this kind of transportation facility.
But now it makes a ton of sense.
Tony Strobbe: if they wanna build a refinery and let’s say Munich or in a place where I live a small place and suddenly you have 20,000 trucks a year coming past to, a local road well that’s environmentally is not the friendliest, but also socially. You will have a lot of Resistance from the local population, which is understandable. So that’s why you see refineries popping up close to the shore, close to railroads. If I see plants to build a uh, refinery in the middle of nowhere I immediately I’m suspicious about what they gonna do there. I mean, it doesn’t make sense.
Antoine Walter: Now, you know, I feel a bit like playing risk. I dunno if you know that game where you’re just putting things on the map and there’s a geopolitical aspect to it, which I’d like to discuss later. But just before we go into that, I’m thinking if I can put my refineries wherever I want. It seems to make more sense to make them directly on the mine because that means I’m shipping something which is much more compact instead of shipping.
SC6, which is more concentrated than direct supply of ore, but which is still very bulky.
Tony Strobbe: Well, you have a point, and that’s basically a decision. It’s also the geopolitical sites don’t forget that. I mean, if you have your country running on 50 years ago, let’s say your country is running on oil. If you don’t have oil, You right. You can get into a crisis like in 1976, I believe where Saudi Arabia said, well, we are not gonna deliver no more oil.
So with the batteries it’ll be the same. It’s not for nothing that European has labeled several minerals of the battery supply chain as strategic materials. So there is certainly a geopolitical side on it. On the other hand, If you have a refinery, you can build it close to the mine, but you can also build it close to the battery manufacturing. Now you need to know that lithium hydroxide is, well, actually lithium is really reactive to water. Lithium hydroxide has a shelf life. I don’t know if you know about that, but basically after six to eight months, it’s diminishes a lot in quality. You don’t want that for a battery because if you diminish the raw materials in quality, the battery the energy density and all those and the cycle things will also diminish.
You don’t want that, so you want to have a fresh product. If you like. Lithium Hydroxide, if you make it in, let’s say Australia, put it on a ship and ship it all the way to Europe, it’s six weeks on the sea. Well, as you know, the sea is very wet. That’s not good for lithium. hydroxide.
Lithium hydroxide reacts really well, let’s say with water, even the water in the air, it reacts to that. So shipping it by six weeks over the sea, it will have an impact on the quality.
That’s basically a plus to build a refinery close to the battery factories in Europe. On the other hand, you’re absolutely right if you ship spodumene concentrate across the ocean, you ship 6% what you want, and 9 4% what you don’t want.
Now, there is an intermediate. And that’s basically a company in the UK does that. I won’t tell the company, but basically what they gonna do is close to the mine. They’re gonna build a factory that produces lithium sulfate. And the lithium sulfate is then transported to. You still have a, a waste, but the waste is much less than all the or e.
Antoine Walter: It’s interesting because you really have all these shades of gray because you have the ones which are doing direct supply of ore, especially these new African projects which are in development and some projects in Northern Australia. You have the shipment of SC6
have the lithium sulfate, you have refining onsite and sending abroad.
So it’s fascinating. I’d never heard of this shelf life of lithium hydroxide, so thanks a lot for that one. You really bring an interesting new link in the chain.
you opened the box of geopolitics and that sounds like something which goes beyond what we’ve seen so far, which is economy, e s g, practical concerns with the she life of hydroxide. It’s a bit about what happened if the main supplier of lithium side all of a sudden is not my friend anymore.
Seen those concerns in many countries. My question here is what is the right scale when it comes to geopolitics? Is it like Europe, America’s, China, or is it even more specific that maybe Canada has to take its safeties as compared to the us?
Tony Strobbe: that’s a difficult question for me to ask cuz I’m not a politician. But I would say that the scale NATO countries for instance, I mean, on that scale, I believe there are two aspects on this. First the geopolitical Thing, but it’s also an aspect of the countries like Bolivia, Mexico where I am Argentina, Chile, they want to have as much value out of that as possible.
So what they’re trying to do is basically they want to build the lithium refineries close to the mine. Preferably also built the cars here, built the cars in Argentina, and then shipped the cars all over the world, which obviously is not the right thing to do in my view.
But. that’s a little concern because quite frankly, what they don’t wanna do is they don’t wanna create another colonial age, like in the 17 hundreds where all the countries in Africa basically were mined empty, and the raw materials were shipped to the developed countries, let’s say Europe .
to be processed into more valuable stuff. They, wanna do as much as possible in land. You see that what Zimbabwe is doing right now in Zambia.
Antoine Walter: , to that extent. I’m curious to get your view on, you mentioned Mexico, which to me is a good example because the biggest development project in Mexico is 50% owned by Ganfeng, maybe even more than 50%. I’m not sure. Which means it is a Chinese asset. In Mexico. So if you’re entering in a trade war for whatever reason, between the US and China, would they accept lithium coming from Mexico?
If it is a Chinese lithium
Tony Strobbe: I,
I dunno. What I do know is Ganfeng who is starting up the Sonora mine here in Mexico. They will support their, or to China. I mean China for now is I believe 68% of the products from lithium France come from China, but they only have 21% of the lithium in house.
So it needs to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is, mines like Ganfeng like the Sonora mine , in Mexico. I’m sure. Well, actually I’m pretty sure that the Mexican government doesn’t want that. But basically it’s a little bit ofk. The mine is in Chinese hands. And to nationalize it, that’s something the Mexican government can’t do and will not do.
However, the new mine that’s coming up in Mexico that potentially will come up in Mexico will be owned by the people. That’s basically now. I think for the last six months or so, written in law. So they can’t be owned by foreign companies anymore. It’s basically will be processed by a Mexican state company.
Antoine Walter: So even at that level you might say Mexico is part of. really muggle here. So I might say something stupider than me, but the I mean, Mexico, us, Canada. So you would think if US and Canada are beefing up their supply chains, maybe Mexico doesn’t need to, but it seems like every country wants to have some security about access to lithium in the future and access to EV revolution.
Tony Strobbe: they, They call it the gold rush. The current day Gold Rush. If there’s lithium in the ground, you want to get it out and you wanna make value of it for the profit of the people at least in, in Mexico which sounds a good idea.
However, the lithium the minds that are not yet operational, but. Can go online. Basically they are lithium, sedimentary, lithium they call it. So basically lithium hiding in clay and to extract lithium from clay. That’s something that is not yet done in on industrial scale.
So quite frankly, they’re a long way off. In addition, if you don’t want foreign investment or foreign involvement it’s not so easy to get the required funds to start up a lithium supply chain. You don’t have also the expertise in-house. To build up that supply chain.
You mentioned in the beginning of this podcast, you mentioned Bolivia. That’s a key example for 20 years. They wanna do it on their own, quite frankly. For now, what do they have to show for? Well, much nothing I believe.
Antoine Walter: To, to me, really as a layman, Bolivia is an in incredible thing. I, I can’t rub my head around it. You have 58% of the words lithian resources, and you don’t produce a single gram,
Tony Strobbe: Yeah.
Antoine Walter: and you have this. Multi-faced, tender for whom is gonna be the technical partner. And still they haven’t reached a point where they’ve taken a decision.
So I, I have. My difficulty with it to really understand it. And the other thing is what you mentioned about the know-how is pretty impressive. I was looking to know what names of companies and the companies were called European, lithium European methods and. , all these companies are from Australia, and then you had Argentina lithium, lithium, Americas, never Lithium American, lithium, and all these companies are from Canada.
So it’s only to me like they are. In fact, out of these about 60 projects in development I think something like 40 of them. So two third are done by Canadian and Australian companies alone. So to me what that tells is that there is a knowledge and a know-how in certain countries, because of their mining background, because of their oil and gas background.
And when you come to Tahi and kind of unknown fields like lithium, I mean, it’s still in development. Well, you rely on that experience and they have an.
Tony Strobbe: absolutely. I mean, what you see in Bolivia, Bolivia wants to avoid, absolutely avoid what would happen in stripping out the gold and the. Valuable metals and materials in the 17 hundreds. They wanna avoid the same scenario, so they’re really reluctant to invite the foreign experts in to get the lithium out.
And that’s basically what, what is happening? They say, yeah, but and, Of course the foreign investment, if you do a foreign investment, you wanna have a return from it, and that return wants to be as much as possible. But Bolivia wants to have as much as possible captain , in Bolivia to improve the life of the Bolivians.
So it’s a little bit well, haggling, I would say . But it took them 20 years now and they’re still haggling, which is not a good thing. Not for the industry, not for nobody actually.
Antoine Walter: You mentioned the investment, and that is also something which I found clever , in what you were sharing, which is it is capital intensive, so you have to raise money and you have to raise money upfront, long before you actually deliver something, which means for a while you are delivering on a PowerPoint and.
You might or might not reach what was written on your PowerPoint, which leads to sometimes inflated expectations, sometimes shortcut in the timeline, which are not that realistic. So all these projections we see of what’s happening towards 2030, how much is real and how much is wishful thinking.
Tony Strobbe: Well, I think it’s anybody’s guess really. But you are absolutely right. The PowerPoint presentations, and I say that to everybody who wants to listen to me. The power presentations are written to entice investors to invest. So what I wanna say is, oh, we are gonna have that, we’re gonna have that, we’re gonna have that two years later.
It’s very nice, but in reality, I dunno. it wouldn’t surprise me of the giga factors. If we talk about giga factors right now 50% of the giga factories, the capacity won’t be there. Pretty sure of it. There will be more firms like British Fault, that will go the same way.
I’m certain of it, I mean, as an investor and basically if you wanna step on the investing in the Green Wave right now, I would say do it, it’s still good, but do your homework. If you see a firm like let’s say Tony Volt my name, then building a Giga Effect.
Check out who that Tony guy is. Does he have a nice shiny website? And that’s about it. Check them out before you invest. Do that. What you’re seeing right now is basically many people are thinking, oh, they want to step on the train, they want to be there before it’s too late.
They don’t wanna say, , for Amazon, I didn’t invest in Amazon. I didn’t defend it Google and I missed out on that. Well, I would say, do your homework and it’s better. To skip on a good investment then to enter a bad one.
Antoine Walter: There’s a last leg that journey where I like to catch your brain, which is when I started this full investigation, you know, I’m a water professional, so I’m starting from water. That’s my thing. That’s the thing I understand. And the reason why I got attracted to this deep dive into lithium at first is that the promise of direct lithium extraction sounds so cool.
And I mean, it’s perfect. You are taking whatever. Groundwater, which has a certain level of lithium. And actually just in my backyard actually there is this type of water, which is rich lithium. You bring it through steps, which the water industry would consider. Pretty standard. I mean, we have the technologies, they have been tested.
Maybe they need to get slightly adapted, and at the outlet you get, lithium sounds really so cool.
I’m digging into the. The more I’m hearing that might as well never happen. So, , what’s your vision on Direct Lithium traction and where will it play a role if it ever plays a role?
Tony Strobbe: Well, basically , I share enthusiasm for the process. I strongly believe in dle. I have high expectations about that. But. It sounds too good to be true. I mean, you pump up a hot soup. Let’s say you take out what you want, then you pump it back in the ground. Wow. Oversimplified, of course.
But we are not there yet. And that’s also what you heard about. We are not there yet. Whatever the company’s involved claim. It’s still has technical issues that need to be resolved before mass production. I know about one thing, the real impact on diluting the underground brine deposit is still unknown.
You don’t know that. Also what you have is if you have a D l E plant it’s a hot soup. Basically it’s very abrasive for the piping. It’s very abrasive for all the materials you use. There are three or four different techniques to get the lithium out.
But if you use membranes, the membrane. Tend to clog up a lot. If you have an industrial process and 50% of the time the plant is down, eventually, that’s an issue. . But I agree with you. Vulcan resources in your area, I believe and control term resources in California, consultancy in California, I believe that are the two that, that doing it also live as something operational.
But it’s still not on the industrial scale. So I do believe in the process and I really hope it gets off the ground, but we’re not there.
Antoine Walter: And will it go out of the ground first as a standalone, or is it a clever, complimentary technology to evaporation ponds?
Tony Strobbe: Good question. I know Levant does it In, in there, I believe in Chile. It is while terminal resources in California is actually an extension of a Berkshire Hathaway plant that uses the heat to produce electricity. Because quite frankly, if you have a hot brine, you can also make steam and electricity, and that’s basically a known process which is done already.
The only step further you need to take the lithium out. I think in my view, I don’t know the process that much, but I do believe it’s a standalone process in common junction with the electricity production like Vulcan in the German plant. I would say if it can be done in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina.
Wow. You get rid of the evaporation pumps which is. Environmental not so friendly. But I don’t know which way to go, actually.
Antoine Walter: To close that deep dive. You made clear how there is a separation between the chemical parts and the assembly part and how that calls for two ends, the one which goes up to batteries and cars and the other which goes chemicals and mining or evaporation pond, or whatever it is.
Yeah. Yet when you look at PowerPoint, , they are players which are looking at building the vertical.
And if you look at what Ang is doing, somehow they are building that vertical. So if we look now in a crystal ball in five or 10 years in the future will we see these powerhouses going from the mines, somewhere in the word up to the battery, in the car, and maybe up to the.
Tony Strobbe: to predict the future, you need to look at the past. And if I look at the past, I mean, you had the same thing going on with microprocessors. This shipping technology. There was also some people went first pretty much completely vertical and some didn’t. Now you have a design part with companies like Synopsis.
You have a part where they produce it, the fps, let’s say like T S M C. Then you have a third part of packaging that, that actually make the chips. And then you have delivery machine manufacturing, like A S M L. Basically the factory that went all vertical had to stop because the research and development part to be at the top, the research and development was way too much to do it, and that’s why you see that separation.
And I think with batteries it will be the same.
Antoine Walter: So we are rather heading towards ultra specialization than we are heading towards verticals.
Tony Strobbe: I think so because quite frankly, it’s a CapEx intensive industry. And if you can go back to British Fault British fault, need to. Invest in research and development, need to build a pilot plant to do their testing, need to build a giga factory, they all need to do that.
Quite frankly, you need to have a lot of money to do that because what you’re doing is you’re making , three companies and ones. So basically what would you have, you have one factory that does r and d. You have another factory or company that basically makes a pilot line and the designers can test their product on that pilot line at a fee of course.
And then basically you have the giga factories who. Make the batteries on an industrial scale with technology that actually comes from somewhere else. And that’s what actually will happen with the new guy that’s taking off British Vault Recharge industries. They have their own products, but basically the technology they use is not their own.
They use technology from sior Fee, that’s basically another company. So what they are going to do is basically they gonna produce. On industrial scale batteries, and that’s what British Fault also had to do. But they choose to also build a pilot client. They also built a research and development center, and that can also work.
Look at Norville. Norfolk does it like that, but nor has a strong backing. I mean, they have $1 billion as a backer, while British Fault has nothing as backing, so you can’t do.
Antoine Walter: you have the risk of spreading yourself too thin.
Tony Strobbe: Yeah, absolutely.
Antoine Walter: Tony, it’s been incredible to tap into your brain for that deep dive. So thanks a lot. And to round off these interviews, I have a series of rapid, fair questions. I’m sorry, because they might be a bit water oriented at some point, but I’m sure you also have a Joker card, which you can use whenever you want.
Get Season 1's Summary!
Rapid fire questions:
Antoine Walter: The principle is I try to keep the questions short and you have to try to keep the answers short, and I’m the one side tracking, so don’t worry. My first question is, what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on and.
Tony Strobbe: Well, one of my first, let’s say, designing, building, and installing a temperature supervisory control system for a line with hundreds of curing ovens for tires in Sri Lanka. Why because early nineties in rural Sri Lanka, most line raids had never seen a TV before, let alone I needed to instruct them how to operate the laptop computer.
So that’s something that is, was exciting.
Antoine Walter: Can you name one thing that you’ve learned the hard way?
Tony Strobbe: Well, even the best programs fail if you cannot achieve the support of all the stakeholders. Stakeholder management is really important.
Antoine Walter: Is there something you are doing today in your job that you will not be doing in 10 years?
Tony Strobbe: I see myself, well, in 10 years. I’m I’m not 20 anymore, so in 10 years already. a long part. But basically the HandsOn part, I see that already the hands-on part of actually building and visiting sites constructing the plant is becoming less. Every day the advisory part is growing, so basically advising plants, advising people who want to start a manufacturing plant that is growing,
Antoine Walter: I’ll slightly change the next one. What is the trend to watch out for in the industrial sector
Tony Strobbe: For batteries, I would say battery chemistries are evolving and quite frankly I see them evolving in the solid state batteries and hopefully in 10, 15, 20 years into battery on chip technology, that’s something that interests.
Antoine Walter: I’ve seen you posting about the various possible materials that could replace Lithium, you’re absolutely not liable to your bet at all. But if you had to bet on just one, which one could it be?
Tony Strobbe: I would say nickel, cobalt, manganese will go further. Now we are at eight 11. It’ll go further to 9 55, so higher nickel content. Basically the existing technology. That’s my path. Just for a short while. I’ll think from the next decade onwards, it’ll be solid state.
Antoine Walter: Well, Tony, it’s been a pleasure to spend that hour with you. If people want to follow up with you, what is the best place for them to look you up?
Tony Strobbe: Well, I the same way you look me up and basically I post every Monday I post something new about the EV supply chain. I’m more in specifically lithium and the chemistries and all those kind of things. Linkages.
Antoine Walter: So LinkedIn is the place to follow you to contact.
Tony Strobbe: is. Yes.
Antoine Walter: Awesome. Well, thanks a lot and I might be interested in a follow up at some point to see how all of that develops , in, let’s say one or two years. So thanks that for your time and I hope to speak to you soon.