Alberta wells gush a different gold

Winter 2017
PETROCHEMISTRY

Technology aimed at cleaning up the wastewater generated by oil and gas extraction could also transform Alberta into one of the world’s leading lithium producers.

This element has become a key ingredient in batteries powering everything from smart phones to automobiles, but most of it comes from conventionally mined sources outside of Canada. Now this valuable commodity is starting to flow from the same wells that established Alberta’s prominent place in the petroleum industry.

That prospect has emerged from efforts to confront a fundamental environmental and economic problem that bedevils every oil well: diminishing output. While the popular image of a well may be that of a gusher spewing pure product, the harsh reality is that over time this desired product is steadily displaced by the brine that accompanies petroleum deposits, so that eventually a rig might yield liquid containing as little as one percent petroleum by volume. For operators, that means revenues are dropping while they remain legally responsible for disposing of ever larger amounts of waste liquid.

Until recently there were few options other than sending this liquid back down the well hole, which only further compromised the overall efficiency of the operation. However, research that began in the 1990s revealed the brine found in some fields contained commercially significant amounts of lithium. Initial attempts to isolate the material relied on simple solar evaporation, which meant leaving the brine exposed in ponds for as long as 18 months. That delay was dramatically reduced with a method developed by Alberta-based PurLucid Treatment Solutions Inc., which can complete the same extraction in single day. The new technique flash-freezes the liquid, then evaporates it under reduced-pressure conditions to yield precipitate with concentrations of lithium carbonate that can reach 95 percent or higher.

Last fall PurLucid and the rights to this invention were acquired by Vancouver-based MGX Minerals, which subsequently began purchasing mature oil fields from various well owners who were only too happy to get these properties off their hands.

“That conversation, as you can imagine, has gone very well,” says MGX President and CEO Jared Lazerson. “Now we’re getting ready to sit down and look at serious joint ventures.”

He identifies several lines of business that are being enhanced by this single innovation.    The most obvious is the production of lithium but tied to that is the treatment of the brine, which is consequently cleaned up to a degree sufficient for release to the environment and could be offered as a resource on its own.

“We’re not sure what kind of revenue could be generated by providing this fresh water to industry, but it could be a huge benefit overall,” says Lazerson.

At the same time, the wells continuing to offer up modest amounts of petroleum, which is now part of a broader mix of products that were not available to the original operators who were surprised anyone would want to continue working these older, marginal fields.

Above all, he points out, Alberta is well placed to achieve such profitability, because the same infrastructure that has long moved petroleum around the province can likewise be used to move the brine from the field to new treatment facilities that MGX is assembling.

“There’s a wealth of technical and physical assets within the province,” says Lazerson, adding that access to lithium enables these assets to take part in the highly anticipated “post-petroleum” economy that will rely on batteries for energy storage. “The oil came out of the well and the lithium is coming out of the well. It’s not complicated but it’s fascinating that it could result in Canada being a significant player in the lithium game, tied directly to the oil industry.”