BrianPaesBraga_1
Credit: Pooya Nabei

Brian Paes-Braga's lithium mining outfit aims to fuel electric car battery manufacturers

Brian Paes-Braga is banking on an expected surge in demand for lithium ion batteries

Last summer, after Elon Musk unveiled the Model 3, Tesla Inc.’s most affordable car to date, the rush of almost 350,000 pre-orders got Brian Paes-Braga’s attention. The kicker: an expected surge in demand for lithium ion batteries. Global sales of plug-in electric automobiles hit more than 770,000 units last year, according to the Electric Vehicle World Sales Database. Although such vehicles still only account for about one percent of the market, that’s a 42 per cent jump over 2015.

Paes-Braga, the 29-year-old president and CEO of Lithium X Energy Corp., sits at a spotless glass-top coffee table on the 31st floor of Vancouver’s Bentall III tower. A confusing array of arrows, charts and seven-figure numbers are scribbled in blue ink on a whiteboard behind his oak desk. In the corner sits a full bottle of premium whiskey surrounded by three tumblers awaiting a celebratory pour once his mining startup begins lithium production next year.

North Vancouver–raised Paes-Braga has the panache of a seasoned promoter. After dropping out of the University of Calgary at age 20, he starting working as a stockbroker trading shares in biotech, medical, real estate and junior mining companies. The latter often tainted the now-defunct Vancouver Stock Exchange’s reputation, Paes-Braga admits. But “capital is gathering around credible ventures,” he says, claiming he has a winner with Lithium X, even if some analysts ask whether the lithium boom is largely hype.

Besides car batteries, the lightweight metal is used in a wide range of products, from glass to polymers to antidepressants. Demand for lithium could outstrip supply by 25 per cent in 2020, Credit Suisse Group projects, largely thanks to the shift to hybrid fossil fuel–electric and fully electric car engines.

Paes-Braga moved quickly in 2016, launching Lithium X with a pair of heavyweights, Vancouver mining and film industry tycoon Frank Giustra and resource financier Paul Matysek, who has several multihundred-million-dollar exits to his name. The team headhunted New Jersey–based stock promoter Timothy McKenna, a veteran of the U.S. lithium mining sector who previously worked with Rockwood Holdings Inc., America’s only lithium producer.

With a crew of 11, Lithium X joins several other Canadian juniors hoping to get rich off the mineral. “It’s a race to production right now,” Paes-Braga says. “The price of lithium has gone from $5,000 per tonne in 2015 to north of $15,000 for battery-grade lithium.”

By industry standards, mining lithium has a relatively small environmental footprint, according to Paes-Braga. The mineral, found in a brine, is air-dried in pools once it’s pumped from the ground. But separating it from the remaining ore requires energy-intensive electrolysis, and making lithium ion batteries yields ecologically toxic byproducts.

Still, investors are intrigued. Lithium X shares traded on the TSX Venture Exchange at a high of about $2.35 in late 2016 but had dipped to roughly $1.60 by March 31. The previous month the company took a big step toward production by winning regulatory approval to build its first ponding facility at its Sal de los Angeles property in Argentina, in the so-called lithium triangle straddling that country, southern Bolivia and northern Chile. Lithium X has a 50 per cent stake in the land, with an option to acquire up to 80 per cent. The pond is designed to produce 2,500 tonnes a year of lithium carbonate equivalent, the mineral’s standard measurement unit. That volume could be worth more than $US25 million, Paes-Braga reckons, but he warns that these are early days. “That’s just the first of several ponds we hope to build at Sal de los Angeles,” he says, adding that the company is exploring other properties in Argentina and Nevada.