There’s an emerging industry in Alberta — potentially worth billions of dollars — mining ancient saltwater deposits instead of solid rock for lithium.
Lithium is used mostly in rechargeable batteries but is also an important ingredient in glass cooktops and other everyday goods.
The industry is turning a major corner.
It’s been a big week for Calgary-based E3 Lithium as its first pilot plant started extracting the important metal from liquid brine deposits, located deep underground near Olds, Alta.
“Projects like ours that are trying to be developed are in their final stages, so the technologies are now getting across the line in terms of commerciality. We’re starting to see a couple of projects build a commercial direct extraction facility,” said Chris Doornbos, CEO of E3 Lithium.
The coming decade is expected to bring a boom in the emerging sector.
AER, the federal government and businesses all expect that liquid brine lithium — much of it located in Alberta — will add a big boost to Canada’s estimated 3.2 million tonnes of conventional rock-based reserves.
Once fully operating and shipping lithium out for further refining, Doornbos says he expects the plant will employ 160 people full-time for operations, which doesn’t include construction of the facility.
“Our initial plan is somewhere between 20 and 30 thousand tonnes of lithium hydroxide. We think we can have that running by late 2026 or thereabouts,” Doornbos said.
It’s not enough to catch up to the global giants of Australia and South America but industry and government are increasingly seeing it as a big contributor to the future economy.
Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean says his government has high hopes the nascent industry can take off, now that the commercial extraction processes have been largely proven.
“We have great lithium deposits in Alberta,” Jean said on Thursday.
“I think that we’re going to see lithium as one of the major exports.”
About three-quarters of the world’s supply of the reactive metal is used in rechargeable batteries — everything from phones to electric vehicles — with another 14 per cent used in ceramics and glass.
Jean was tasked last month with helping the industry take off, and a big part of that continues to be regulatory approval.
The industry also wants to see a faster, smoother permitting process for new mining and extraction facilities.
“They cause a longer timeline and if we want to bring projects on quickly, we have to make sure that we are supporting that early-stage ability to go and do the exploration,” said Jason Latkowcer, CEO of Pan American Energy.
Pan American Energy works on identifying and proving conventional hard rock and clay deposits.
In many parts of the world, lithium is extracted using large evaporation ponds but E3’s method essentially filters trace lithium out of geothermal brine found far beneath the earth around oil deposits.
The concentrated lithium is separated for further refinement and the brine is then pumped back into the ground, otherwise unchanged.
One of the advantages Alberta has is not only the well-documented drill sites, but also the expertise.
The skill sets aren’t really different from any conventional oil production — some of the best in the world are already living right here.
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