In the past, Alberta’s abundant lithium reserves have proven too difficult and expensive to tap into — especially in comparison to the province’s oil. But uncertainty in the oil patch and increased demand for lithium batteries have innovators in the province looking for new ways to extract it. However, they’ll face technical and regulatory challenges to do so.

An Alberta lithium industry would source lithium from brine found deep underneath the province’s soil. Brine is water that contains large quantities of minerals — mainly salt. But, among the elements in the brine is lithium. Research conducted by the Alberta government over the past 30 years says the lithium-containing brine is abundant in the Fox Creek, Swan Hills and Leduc areas. The Calgary-based company E3 Metals is hoping to take advantage of that abundance.

“We saw an opportunity because lithium was known in [the Leduc Reservoir] and we had research conducted by various different people showing that lithium was actually everywhere in Leduc,” says Chris Doornbos, president and CEO of E3 Metals.

“Producing the brine out of the Leduc was something that was quite easy,” says Doornbos. “If you ask anyone in the oil and gas industry about the Leduc, they will tell you all it does is produce water, not oil. So, it was a very good reservoir for producing water.”

What the producers in the Leduc didn’t have was the technology to efficiently separate the lithium from the water. Conventional methods of extracting lithium from brine require removing all the other elements and leaving the lithium behind. Unlike separating the much denser oil from water, removing the lithium requires considerable effort, energy and expense. 

The oilsands was the same thing. You talked about oil sands in the ‘60s — no one believed it was going to be a thing. Now no one questions the possibility” – Chris Doornbos, president and CEO, E3 Metals Corporation

“It’s an extra step that normal industry in Alberta doesn’t normally go through,” says Doornbos. “Normally you just take the oil out of the water, which is quite a simple process, and sell the oil. Here we have to take lithium out of water, which is not as simple as oil and gas by any stretch.” 

But a change in how the world consumes energy is driving innovators to find a solution to this challenging problem.

The International Energy Agency expects global oil demand will plateau by 2030, mainly due to the increased use of electric vehicles. And that increase means more demand for lithium.
That’s because lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate compounds that are refined from the lithium, are used to make a variety of products, including the batteries that power those vehicles.

More electric vehicles would also mean increased demand for electricity. That would further increase demand for lithium if a substantial amount of that power comes from sources that also require batteries, such as wind turbines and solar panels. As a result, E3 Metals is one of several companies in the province who are looking at ways of tapping into Alberta lithium.
After successfully trialling a direct lithium extraction ion exchange process — created in collaboration with the University of Alberta — E3 has partnered with U.S. chemical manufacturer Livent to build a field pilot project that will remove the lithium from the brine. The process involves binding lithium to another chemical, essentially creating a chemical sieve.

“Basically we end up with a highly concentrated, very pure stream out of the back end of our process. That stream can be made into lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate very simply and easily using conventional technology used anywhere else in the world.”

Press day at Leduc #1, February 1947. The well site is regarded as the birthplace of the Alberta oil industry. PHOTO: Glenbow Archives

Despite an opportunity to capitalize on the growing lithium demand, an Alberta lithium industry will only take off if it can make money. While eliminating the effort of extracting the lithium reduces costs, companies like E3 need to be able to produce lithium at volumes where they can make a profit.

“The risk now isn’t so much [in] the economics as it is manufacturing this in a commercial scale,” says Doornbos, who believes E3’s lab-scale solution can be upscaled to produce their initial goal of 20,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent.

In addition to the challenge of producing lithium on a commercial scale, there are also questions about whether companies such as E3 would be regulated by the Alberta Energy Regulator, like an oil and gas company. What royalties would be collected by the government has also yet to be decided.

While the company has received support from the federal government to scale up their operations, Doornbos says a general recognition of commercial lithium as a viable industry would be another way to help kick start the industry.

“The oilsands was the same thing. You talked about oil sands in the 60s — no one believed it was going to be a thing. Now no one questions the possibility.”