Tesla in talks with Brazil-based startup to access lithium supply for EV batteries

Tesla Gigafactory 1, where Model 3 battery cells are produced. (Photo: Tesla)

Tesla is reportedly looking to strike a deal with Sigma Lithium Resources Group, a Brazilian startup company that can supply Tesla with lithium, a key ingredient of electric car batteries.

Sigma was granted a license to begin mining lithium by the Environmental Authority of the State of Minas Gerais, the Council of Environmental Policy on June 11, 2019. The license will allow Sigma to mine hard rock lithium, a crucial piece of automotive-grade lithium-ion batteries, for six-years, making the company an extremely valuable asset for automakers pursuing electric mobility.

It should be noted that Brazil was ranked No.7 among countries with the highest concentration of lithium. A large percentage of the metal, used primarily for the production of glass and batteries, is available in the Minas Gerais area.

Sigma has previously met with Tesla’s current lithium supplier, Ganfeng Lithium, a Chinese-based company that is currently the country’s largest supplier of the material. Tesla reportedly organized the meeting between both parties that unfortunately did not end in a deal. Sigma CEO Calvyn Gardner cited the Brazilian startup company could not meet the financial or production needs that Ganfeng requested.

“There’s a bunch of other things that they [Ganfeng] need, not just prices, but other demands which are a little more complicated that sort of restricts Sigma to almost supplying purely into China. It’s not really what we think we should be doing over the long term,” Gardner remarked at a mining conference in Brazil. 

Gardner, who calls himself a “fan” of Tesla, was interested in purchasing a Model 3 for himself but ran into roadblocks as Tesla does not have a sales office in the South American country. After import taxes would have more than doubled the cost of the Model 3, he decided to hold off.

Striking a deal with Tesla would directly benefit both companies. Tesla currently uses Gigafactory partner Panasonic as its battery supplier but appears to be seeking to expand it lineup of partners, especially after the Japanese electronics conglomerate has cut its profit outlook due to China’s trade war with the US. Tesla’s acquisition of Maxwell Technologies, an ultracapacitor producer, also hinted at the electric car maker’s plans to pursue battery technology beyond its Panasonic partnership.

It would be beneficial for both Tesla and Sigma to strike a deal directly, with the Brazilian company shipping the lithium to the electric car maker. Unfortunately, this could only happen once makers of cathodes, another primary component of batteries, set up facilities in the United States.

Other large automakers that are bursting into the electric transportation market, such as Volkswagen and BMW, have held talks with Sigma already. Gardner, a graduate of the University of South Africa, is optimistic over the talks with both German automakers. “Having options to get lithium from other jurisdictions and that you can supply over the long term,” he said. “That’s what all of them are interested in and we think Sigma can do that.”

There is no shortage of money or optimism in the lithium mining industry. Sigma has recently received a $30 million loan from Japanese trading group Mitsui, according to Reuters. The money is planned to be used in building Sigma facilities, and will be repaid in a big way: a third of Sigma’s planned output of lithium from its Minas Gerais mining facility.

Tesla in talks with Brazil-based startup to access lithium supply for EV batteries
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