Lithium in Al­berta oil­patch could power elec­tric cars

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - AMANDA STEPHEN­SON

Cal­gary-based E3 Met­als wouldn’t ex­ist if it weren’t for the work of Elon Musk.

The nat­u­ral re­sources com­pany, which was founded in 2016, has de­vel­oped a patented ion-ex­change ex­trac­tion tech­nol­ogy that pro­duces pu­ri­fied lithium con­cen­trate from the light metal that oc­curs nat­u­rally within the prov­ince’s oil­field brines. The com­pany’s goal is to pro­duce bat­tery-grade lithium hy­drox­ide that can be used in the man­u­fac­tur­ing of lithium-ion bat­ter­ies — the same type of bat­ter­ies that power the elec­tric cars made by Musk’s com­pany, Tesla Inc.

“It wasn’t be­cause of Tesla, but it was be­cause of what Tesla did,” E3’s pres­i­dent and CEO Chris Doorn­bos said, on the in­spi­ra­tion for his com­pany’s tech­nol­ogy. “They took a con­cept, which was an elec­tric ve­hi­cle, and turned it into some­thing that could be a main­stream ve­hi­cle … and therein lies an op­por­tu­nity.”

It’s long been known that Al­berta’s his­toric oil and gas-pro­duc­ing Le­duc Reser­voir is rich in lithium de­posits, but the rapid growth in global de­mand for the metal is a re­cent phe­nom­e­non. That growth is driven in part by cell­phone bat­ter­ies, but it’s the rise of the elec­tric ve­hi­cle that’s re­ally driv­ing re­newed in­ter­est in Al­berta’s asyet-un­tapped lithium po­ten­tial.

While elec­tric cars are still rel­a­tively rare in Al­berta, they have al­ready made ma­jor in­roads in Europe, Cal­i­for­nia and China — and the growth is only ex­pected to ac­cel­er­ate as bat­tery ca­pa­bil­i­ties im­prove, EVS get cheaper and con­cerns over cli­mate change in­crease. Ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg New En­ergy Fi­nance, EV sales world­wide are ex­pected to sur­pass sales of in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine ve­hi­cles by 2039.

The de­mand for lithium is fore­cast to over­take sup­ply as early as 2025.

“Ev­ery­one who’s fol­low­ing this space be­lieves that’s go­ing to be the tip­ping point,” said Doorn­bos.

“If Al­berta re­ally wants to be smart about look­ing to the fu­ture, and not just do­ing what we’ve al­ways done, we need to start build­ing this in­dus­try up.”

Most of the world’s lithium is cur­rently pro­duced in Aus­tralia, South Amer­ica and China us­ing tra­di­tional pro­cesses such as hard-rock min­ing or mas­sive evap­o­ra­tion ponds. Nei­ther method is suited to Al­berta’s cli­mate or ge­og­ra­phy and both meth­ods have neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pli­ca­tions. Pro­po­nents of a home­grown Al­berta lithium in­dus­try be­lieve that — with the de­vel­op­ment of the right tech­nol­ogy — the prov­ince could be a global provider of greener, more eco­nom­i­cal lithium pro­duced via re­pur­posed oil and gas in­fra­struc­ture.

An Al­berta lithium in­dus­try could also pro­vide em­ploy­ment for laid-off oil-and-gas work­ers. E3 — which has se­cured the lithium and other min­eral rights to more than 1.3 mil­lion acres in the Le­duc Reser­voir re­gion — hopes to ul­ti­mately con­struct a com­mer­cial ex­trac­tion and pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity within the prov­ince, some­thing that Doorn­bos

said could cre­ate 300 to 500 full-time jobs. The com­pany hopes to be in pro­duc­tion by 2023, pro­duc­ing 20,000 tonnes of lithium car­bon­ate equiv­a­lent per year with the abil­ity to scale up.

“There’s a huge op­por­tu­nity to do it here in Al­berta, be­cause what you need is land and a pro­fes­sional skill set,” Doorn­bos said. “And we have all of those pieces here.”

The pos­si­bil­ity for Canada to be­come the sup­plier of choice for a low-car­bon, eth­i­cally pro­duced lithium is real, said Ja­son Switzer, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Al­berta Clean Tech­nol­ogy In­dus­try Al­liance.

“Lithium is one of those plays that speaks to Al­berta’s strengths. We’re al­ready pump­ing a lot of lithium up, we’re just ba­si­cally putting it back down the hole right now,” Switzer said. “But we shouldn’t kid our­selves, it’s a bit of a race to be first. It’s a bit like LNG — who­ever gets there first is go­ing to lock in a mar­ket. If you’re sec­ond or third, you may miss that op­por­tu­nity.”

An­other Al­berta com­pany work­ing in the lithium space is Sum­mit Nan­otech. The Cal­gary-based com­pany was founded last year and is cur­rently test­ing its own en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly ex­trac­tion process that uses nan­otech­nol­ogy prin­ci­ples to get lithium out of brine wa­ter. CEO Amanda Hall said the com­pany’s tar­get mar­ket is the South Amer­i­can lithium in­dus­try, though Al­berta could be a sec­ondary mar­ket if it gets its own lithium sec­tor off the ground.

“We have a lot of ben­e­fits in Al­berta be­cause the wells we would use to get the lithium out of the ground are al­ready drilled, and the dis­posal wells to get rid of the byprod­ucts are al­ready here,” Hall said. “How­ever, the op­er­a­tion costs and the cap­i­tal needed to build the ac­tual re­fin­ery for these lithium ex­trac­tion pro­cesses is go­ing to be some­thing we strug­gle with. We need as much sup­port as we can get from the oil and gas in­dus­try, and the pro­vin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments as well.”

Hall added in ad­di­tion to ex­tract­ing and re­fin­ing, pro­po­nents of Al­berta lithium dream of the prov­ince even­tu­ally be­ing home to bat­tery man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties as well, so that the sec­tor does more than just ship out raw prod­uct. But be­fore that can hap­pen, some­one is go­ing to have to prove they have the win­ning tech­nol­ogy that can get the lithium out of the ground re­spon­si­bly, sus­tain­ably and cheaply.

“That’s the hur­dle we all have to over­come,” Hall said. “It’s go­ing to be a chal­lenge, but it’s like frack­ing. Shale gas was not eco­nom­i­cal at one time ei­ther, it just took all that in­ge­nu­ity to find a way to get at it.”

AZIN GHAFFARI FILES

E3 Met­als Pres­i­dent and CEO Chris Doorn­bos says a com­mer­cial fa­cil­ity could cre­ate 300 to 500 full-time jobs.

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