As oil fields become depleted, what remains is a brine that, until recently, was treated as a waste product which had to be carefully managed according to ever more strict environmental regulations. However, what seemed to be trash has turned into treasure, as this brine in select areas contains high amounts of lithium, a commodity highly sought-after by battery makers. Some of the richest of these deposits lie in one of Canada’s most venerable petroleum finds, the Leduc reservoir between Edmonton and Calgary, which was first drilled in the 1940s. While most of its oil is now gone, Chris Doornbos estimates the remaining brine contains some 6.7 million tonnes of lithium are waiting to be extracted, which would make this one of the top five largest resources in the world.
“We understood how big this was going to be well before we put any resources into it,” says Doornbos, who is president and CEO of Calgary-based E3 Metals Corporation, which was established in 2016. “We’re looking at putting this resource is into production for 2022.”
The company has acquired dozens of minerals permits providing it access to some 600,000 hectares of land around Leduc reservoir. It is now in the process of setting up a pilot plant to demonstrate the commercial viability of tapping the brine, demonstrating the viability of a brine process developed at the University of Alberta that will become the foundation for a pilot plant in the field.
He notes that similar deposits found in other parts of the world, such as Chile’s Atacama desert, rely on extensive networks of evaporation ponds to concentrate material found in brine. Alberta’s very different climate makes that option impractical and the Canadian deposits also contain slightly lower concentrations of lithium, which has forced potential producers like E3 Metals to compete with some novel chemical engineering.
“We’ve been focusing for the past two-and-a-half years on developing a technology that makes this economic,” explains Doornbos. He is referring to the company’s proprietary system, which uses a sorbent structure to pull lithium ions out of brine in repeated cycles that can ultimately extract more than 90% of this metal while dramatically reducing the levels of impurities such as sodium, calcium, or magnesium.
“We provide a very clean concentrate feedstock,” he observes. “If you’re going to make a product to sell to a battery manufacturer, you need to provide them with a product that’s 99.5% pure or better.”
The technology was initially refined in the laboratory of Daniel Alessi, an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. With additional support from Alberta Innovates, a provincially funded research and development agency, E3 Metals enlisted GreenCentre Canada to work on scaling up the process to handle commercial quantities of brine.
Doornbos emphasizes that while lithium brine processing represents a very different kind of resource extraction than Alberta’s longstanding petroleum sector, however much of the necessary infrastructure and expertise is the same. In a future where fossil fuels are steadily being eclipsed by renewable energy that must be stored in batteries, he envisions Alberta developing an international reputation for its lithium output.
“This could be as big as the oil industry,” he concludes. “It has that potential.”