As discussed in an earlier BOE article on Alberta’s natural gas and lithium connection, EV global sales are surging making lithium demand “explode as much as 1000% by 2030” according to the Energy Information Administration.
In addition, China now dominates the lithium supply chain, becoming the 3rd largest lithium producer in the world, outproducing the U.S. in 2020 by more than a factor of 15. This concentration of supply is problematic for the development of domestic industries that are key to near-term economic development- EVs, energy storage systems (ESS), 5G devices, Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure and more.
Conversations following that article led to more in-depth consideration of Alberta’s non-mining lithium opportunity that promises to utilize natural gas supply for extremely low carbon development of Alberta’s considerable lithium reserves.
I had the chance to follow up for information on Alberta’s lithium resource opportunity with E3 Metals CEO Chris Doornbos. In brief, the story behind E3 Metals is not only a story about a lithium resource company – but also about technology development. However it is important to note, E3 Metals’ resources are being developed on the backbone of Alberta’s mature and sophisticated oil and gas industry.
You could say the company has two feet planted in Alberta’s oil and gas history with one of the largest lithium resources amongst its lithium peers- with 7.0 mn tons of Lithium Carbonate Equivalent (LCE), hosted in the world-class Leduc Aquifer. This is one of three of the Company’s permit areas in south-central Alberta.
As stated on the company’s website- the Leduc Aquifer is an expansive ancient reef complex occurring over 2km in the subsurface in the Clearwater area. Over 7,000 wells have been drilled in E3’s broader project area over a 70-year oil and gas development period. Historical data from these wells, supported by E3’s recent sampling campaigns, were used to characterize and model the geology within the resource boundary.
The Clearwater Project
E3 has been working with one subsection of the resource area, the Clearwater project – a two million ton lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) project. The cornerstone to that project and E3 metals’ development, in general, is the direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology that E3 has pioneered.
“We’re now one of the leaders in the space for DLE – processing lithium out of brines without a requirement for evaporation ponds. We use a chemical method and ion exchange to strip lithium from the brine, producing a high grade, low impurity concentrate that we can then refine into battery-grade products.” according to Chris Doornbos.
“The project is starting on a 20,000 tons per annum of lithium hydroxide which is battery grade. This is different from almost all the lithium produced currently – most other lithium production needs secondary refining to make it into battery quality.”
Extraction vs Mining
Doornbos makes the point that most existing lithium extraction by mining and any mining project is energy-intensive.
One of the myths he would like to dispel is that E3 Metals is not a mining operation. He points out it is better-described lithium production and uses extraction technologies adapted from oil and gas production techniques using injections wells and production wells.
The second myth is he’d like to dispel is that all lithium extraction is carbon-intensive.
“When you look at a mining operation you have all these shovels, heavy equipment & trucks and they are burning diesel and the process is very decentralized,” explains Doornbos.
“Then you have transport of a substance that is extremely heavy but contains little product- like the copper concentration of the average grade is maybe 20% of the material -so you are shipping 80% excess weight. That is inefficient and is carbon-intensive. Then carbon is further produced on a train or a ship in transporting the mined product. All of those things become very decentralized and result in a high amount of carbon produced.”
Gas power option
The benefit of DLE technology is it will have a smaller carbon footprint because it’s centralized. Processes will be powered by electricity, and the company plans to generate its power on-site. One option is a gas-fired power plant. All CO2 produced under the gas power plant option will exit from an exhaust pipe on site. This means the company can reduce almost all of the carbon by sequestering the CO2 in that exhaust.
Most of the energy is used in DLE is electrical as the brine has to flow from the bottom of the aquifer out of the well in pipes around the processor and back into the aquifer and that takes electricity to run a pump. The brine is run through ion exchange columns which extract the lithium. It is a closed-loop system.
Wind – the other option
The other power option is wind as Doornbos explained:
“We could source a power agreement and have a company expand their facility to provide power to us. We might still need a much smaller natural gas power plant. The one thing that natural gas does is provide heat from the exhaust which we could use to reduce our entire energy balance. We need a lot of heat to run our crystallizers, which is how we crystallize salt out of the brine. So if we could re-use the heat produced from a gas plant it would reduce the energy budget.”
The DLE process has additional environmental advantages. The process has a much smaller land disturbance footprint. Since the process entails reinjecting saline formation water back into the formation, there is no requirement for evaporative ponds, mining waste dumps, open-pit mines, or tailings ponds. The process doesn’t require large volumes of fresh water either.
Oil and Gas legacy – data
E3 has a big permit area within the Leduc aquifer spanning from Calgary to Edmonton with three project areas in total. In yet another connection to oil and gas Doornbos credits the Alberta oil and gas sector for the foundational work to this new venture saying, “We know the location of Leduc aquifer is because it’s been drilled to depths for oil and gas exploration, so it’s been delineated it for us – all that data is available through the government and they were able to define exactly where the Leduc exists.”
Maureen McCall is an energy professional who writes on issues affecting the energy industry