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How North Dakota's Coal Country turns out to be a good fit for helping make electric vehicle batteries

A site in Mercer County in North Dakota coal country came out at the top of a list of 18 potential sites for a Talon Metals plant to process ore into battery-grade materials.

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Tesla will debut one of its Tesla-charging stations this week in Oakdale, Minn. The electric-car company's nationwide network of Supercharger stations allows Tesla owners to drive cross-country with no "range anxiety." Courtesy Photo / Tesla
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FARGO — The North Dakota coal industry might seem like an improbable partner for the industry that makes materials for batteries for the rapidly growing electric vehicle market.

But that odd-couple marriage of a legacy fossil fuels industry and the emerging sector of low carbon-emission electric vehicles helps explain why Talon Metals chose a site in Mercer County in North Dakota Coal Country for a processing plant to make battery materials.

One of the key reasons the site in Mercer County emerged at the top of the list was its ready access to tons of fly ash residue produced when coal is burned to generate electricity.

North Dakota’s coal-burning power plants produce more than 3 million tons per year of fly ash, which is commonly used in making cement but otherwise must be properly disposed of, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

For instance, the former Coal Creek Station, now called Rainbow Energy Center, produces more than 500,000 tons of fly ash per year, much of which is used by ready-mix companies around the state to make concrete for paving roads and other uses.

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It turns out that the same attributes that make coal ash valuable for making concrete — its fine particles make the concrete denser, improving workability, strength and durability — also make it valuable in disposing of waste created by processing nickel ore for use in batteries, said Todd Malan, chief of external affairs and head of climate strategy for Talon Metals, which is based in Toronto.

Mixing the coal ash with nickel sulfide waste helps neutralize the waste pollution, hardening it much like concrete, making it more environmentally safe, he told The Forum Editorial Board.

Water waste from processing will evaporate, and the residue, mixed with fly ash, will meet state and federal environmental standards, Malan said.

Another advantage of the Mercer County site is that it is located on an existing “brownfield” industrial site. Talon hasn’t yet disclosed the site, which is under negotiations. Pending state and federal regulatory approvals, the company hopes to begin construction on the plant next year.

Talon Metals will take ore from the Tamarack mine in Aitkin County, Minnesota, west of Duluth, and ship it by rail to the site in Mercer County, where Talon will build a $433 million processing plant that will employ 150 workers.

Many of the plant’s workers will earn $100,000 to $125,000 per year, plus benefits, Malan said. Many of the positions will be “pretty technical” and will be “high-quality, career-type jobs,” he said.

Talon Metals has a contract to supply Tesla, a leading manufacturer of electric vehicles, with materials for batteries. Ore from its mines has high concentrations of nickel, copper and cobalt.

Because of North Dakota’s availability of coal ash and its welcoming business environment, Talon Metals believes Tesla could find attractive opportunities in the state.

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“We had such a great engagement with the state of North Dakota,” he said. “You could see a developing battery supply chain within the state of North Dakota.”

Talon is aware, for example, of research to recover rare earth minerals from lignite coal deposits in North Dakota, and other work is exploring extracting lithium, used in making batteries, from the brine, or “produced water,” resulting from oil and gas development, Malan said.

Now, all of the lithium iron phosphate used in batteries comes from China, and the federal government is providing incentives to build a domestic supply chain, said Tom Oakland, energy research and business development manager for the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

Researchers also are trying to develop ways to recover lithium and other rare earth minerals from soil and earth, but it’s a challenge, Oakland said. “The problem is the amount, the parts per million, is small,” he said.

The coal-fired power plants also provide electricity to charge electric vehicle batteries, another way the two industries help one another, Malan and Oakland said.

Talon’s ore-processing plant will draw attention from other companies to the innovative possibilities in North Dakota, Oakland said.

“It’s going to trigger a lot of ideas from other businesses, other industries,” he said. “I have no doubt there will be more interest in the state with this project.”

Talon Metals got a $114 million cost-share grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for the Mercer County project. Talon has an agreement with the U.S. Steelworkers Union, which will pay half of the training costs for the plant’s workers.

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The company also is in talks with North Dakota’s American Indian tribes to provide workers and business associations, Malan said.

The goal is to produce battery-grade materials for Tesla by the end of 2026, if not sooner, Malan said.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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