Back in July, our Stockhouse audience first met up with Rock Tech Lithium Inc. (TSXV:RCK, Forum) – a cleantech company that’s aiming to serve the automotive industry with high-quality lithium by building Europe’s first lithium hydroxide converter.
Recently, we reconnected with this fast-growing, innovative company, and the company’s Chairman and CEO Dirk Harbecke, to discuss some of the exciting news that’s they’ve been generating since then.
SH: Dirk, can you tell us about the recent big announcement regarding the building of Europe’s first lithium hydroxide converter in Germany?
DH: We have recently indeed, announced our first location. I think I mentioned in the last interview already that we are looking for a few locations in Europe. Overall we have such a high demand for lithium hydroxide on the European continent that we are going to build four or five converters there over time, and we have done a very strict screening process to find the best property to get started with, and this one we have picked now; it is a city in the German federal state of Brandenburg close to the border to Poland. We made a big press conference on this, and we got a huge feedback I have to say from the investor community and also from the press all over Europe.
SH: When do you realistically see this type of infrastructure coming to North America?
DH: I'm pretty confident that this will come relatively soon also to North America. At the moment, I have to say that the European continent is probably two to three years ahead in the set up for e-mobility. The large car companies here are really fully focused now on electric cars, which is also the case now in the US and you'll see everywhere on the streets now electric cars. This is still a bit different for example, in Canada but it will all come because also the US and Canadian governments are pushing a lot in alignment with the car companies to get e-mobility on the streets. So I think Europe is two to three years ahead, but North America is going to pick up very fast.
SH: Why the decision to locate in the city of Guben in Brandenburg State on the Polish border?
DH: We have seen that in Eastern Germany, there's more and more e-mobility hubs being set up, and we have looked into a few locations, and we are still looking into further locations, but the city of Guben where we decided to have our first plant set up was extremely welcoming to us. We got all kinds of support that we need and as you said, it's just at the border to Poland, so this also has several advantages. It's a sort of European city with the Polish and the German part. You have of course, employees from Poland and from Germany and we like the international spirit. In addition to this we are very close to key parties in the e-mobility value chain. Tesla's big Gigafactory in Grünheide in Germany is just 100 kilometers away in the same federal state right in the same province as you would say, and also BASF, one of the largest cathode producers in Europe has a big factory just 60 kilometers away from us. So the logistics to be close to other parties in the supply chain was also a key argument for us.
SH: Can you explain what the converter actually does and why it’s important for Europe to have one?
DH: Actually, when you get lithium oxide usually out of the ground, it has normally a concentration of 1% and what you do as a first step, you make a 6% concentrate out of this but eventually the biggest step is what the converter is doing. You convert 6%, spodumene concentrate into lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, which are the lithium chemicals that is the basis for the lithium-ion batteries, and this lithium hydroxide is not so easy to transport. So it’s the best option to produce as relatively close to the customers and as we are seeing the European car industry as one of our key customers, we decided to have a converter who is producing this lithium hydroxide in Germany.
SH: You’ve said that over the long-term, you’re aiming to create a closed loop for lithium. Is this technology adaptable from using raw material to recycling lithium batteries, or is there another step you need to develop or acquire?
DH: There are at the moment, already technologies to recycle lithium, but these technologies are currently not economically viable. So we are usually saying that we start investing into the recycling area and we start to set up partnerships also with larger partners. We do not expect that we get significant amounts of recycled materials before eight years from now. So this has a certain perspective. The key reason for this is, by the way, when you're only selling electric cars now, the batteries only last for 8 to 10 years. So they are only coming back on the market for recycling in the 8 to 10 years. So we are preparing in the meantime to develop and improve these technologies in a way that's economically viable and that we become a closed loop company where we always know where our lithium is being used and we can recycle our own lithium and upgrade it again in our converters to better grade lithium for the new batteries
SH: What do the timelines look like?
DH: Our timeline for starting the construction of the first converter is summer next year. So we have purchased a property of course, we start to first work on the property probably in the second quarter of next year and then shortly afterwards we start the construction. The recycling business will only be coming later as outlined a bit before. We have a time gap year, certainly of six, seven years until we can invest into these recycling plants in a significant way.