A Calgary-based company plans to tap into an underground brine aquifer running through central Alberta to extract lithium, a key component in electric vehicle batteries.
Last summer, E3 Lithium Ltd. drilled Alberta’s first brine production wells and purchased another existing well to evaluate lithium potential. Three test wells tapped into the Leduc aquifer, which runs from Calgary to Edmonton 2.5 km below the surface, in the Torrington-Olds area.
The results showed high — and importantly for production purposes — consistent levels of lithium across the aquifer, said Chris Doornbos, founder and CEO of E3 Lithium, which has developed a process to remove lithium from the brine and refine it to the ultra-pure quality suitable for batteries.
“It’s come a long way in the past six years,” said Doornbos. “It’s exciting to think we’re not far off getting this thing commercialized. This is huge for Alberta and our company obviously.”
The company got a boost last November when it was announced it had lined up $27 million from the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund’s Net Zero Accelerator Initiative.
The money will go towards the estimated $87 million it will cost to take the project from its start in 2021 through to detailed engineering design for a full-scale production plant, which is planned for 2026. Later this year, a pilot plant will be built at one of the wellsites to act as a test bed for a full-scale commercial plant that could cost in the range of US$600 million and produce about 20,000 tonnes of battery-grade lithium per year.
Doornbos said the full-scale production facility will likely be built in central Alberta south of Red Deer. A location and necessary approvals will be applied for in the next 18 months.
Lithium production is a good fit in Alberta because it uses much of the same technology and expertise that has been developed for the energy industry, he said.
Similar versions of the ion exchange system that is used to extract lithium is used in water softening and in oilsands production.
“We developed something that’s specific for lithium. But the process around it, the tanks, the systems and the pipes and all that stuff we readily deploy at these scales in Alberta already.”
Doornbos estimates about 80 per cent of the technology and expertise needed for the E3 lithium project, including drilling, pipeline and production technology is currently in use in the oil and gas industry in Alberta.
As an oilfield services centre, Red Deer has the workforce that would be ideal for the lithium business.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for the local community in terms of work.”
The market potential for lithium — also used in cellphones, computers and other technology — is huge. Doornbos said the industry is expected to grow 20 to 30 per cent per year for the next 10 to 15 years.
“The biggest challenge for the market is having enough (lithium) to keep up to that demand.
“I think that’s where Alberta can shine,” he said.
E3 alone has rights to an estimated 23 million tonnes of lithium in its holdings that stretch from Airdrie to Camrose.
“That has the potential to produce 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes per year from the 20,000 where we start.”
And E3 is not the only company looking to explore the province’s lithium potential.
“There’s a whole Alberta industry that I think is going to thrive here. The benefit here is it’s an all-Alberta workforce. It’s doing what we’ve already done.
“But it’s a new market, which means we can diversify the economy.”
In announcing the Strategic Innovation Fund investment, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Phillipe Champagne called E3’s project “groundbreaking technology that will play an important role in providing large quantities of battery-grade lithium to the auto industry while also creating high-quality jobs for Canadians.
“This project will help position Canada as a world leader in batteries and will strengthen the critical minerals sector in the Calgary region.”