E3 Metals Named Energy Excellence Awards Champion For Bringing Alberta A Step Closer To Commercial Lithium Production

The Daily Oil Bulletin’s first annual Energy Excellence Awards were held in Calgary on Thursday, May 2. Awards were handed out in 12 categories under the banners of Operational and Project Excellence, Innovation and Research Excellence, and Exporting Excellence.

Over a two-week period we are profiling the champions in each of the 12 subcategories. Today’s instalment profiles the champion in the category Innovation & Research Excellence: Power, Transmission & Storage.

Click here to read about all of the champions and finalists.

E3 Metals Corp. has delineated an inferred resource estimate of 6.7 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent from brine in the Leduc Reservoir, which now ranks Alberta as having one of the largest lithium resources in the world.

If successful in commercializing its proprietary technology for a critical step in lithium production, E3 could spur a new industry in the province, one that aligns with global efforts towards the electrification of transportation and the creation of a lower carbon-intensive economy.

Lithium-ion batteries are the current energy storage technology of choice for electric vehicles, which are gaining market share around the world. Here are some numbers that reflect the growing importance of lithium in this market.

Lithium sold for US$16,500 per tonne in 2018, according to the Metalary.com. That’s a 44 per cent jump from US$9,318 per tonne in 2017. Since 2014, the price of lithium, which is produced primarily in South America and Australia, has tripled.

According to Transparency Market Research, the lithium-ion battery market could be worth US$77.4 billion by 2024, driven mostly by electric vehicles, although lithium is also widely used in ceramics and glass manufacturing, electrical applications and electronics, and lubricating greases.

“What we are working on is one piece of an overall process for lithium production,” says Chris Doornbos, E3 Metals' president and chief executive officer.

In simple terms, lithium production has three steps:

  1. Getting the brine (due to its solubility, lithium is commonly obtained from brines) to surface
  2. Extracting the lithium from the brine into a concentrated solution
  3. Producing lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide from the concentrated solution

“As for the first step, I think we have a huge advantage in getting the brine to surface as it comes out of oil and gas wells today. We understand the reservoir pretty intimately, so there’s not a lot of risk on that side of the project and scaling it up to commercialization,” Doornbos says.

The third step is also well understood. Established lithium production facilities exist around the world. The middle step is E3 Metal’s focus. Doornbos’ team is working on a new approach to brine concentration, which involves a unique polymer resin chemical that is highly selective for lithium.

Research on this concentrating process started in 2017 with the help of the University of Alberta, funded partially through the National Science and Engineering Research Centre. The university continues to be involved, providing technical oversight, direction and scientific and advisory services.

Alberta Innovates also awarded E3 Metals $100,000 towards the completion of E3’s Lithium Extraction Project and maintains an active role in mentorship and support of the company.

“The challenge now is to bring all the pieces together to make an economic commercial lithium operation. We’re working on that at the moment. The last piece of it is our technology,” Doornbos says. “If our process can be scaled up to a commercial level, the rest of the pieces are in place. That’s our reason for piloting it, which will be basically a mini commercial size.”

Further laboratory tests are still needed over the next several months to advance the brine concentration process to a stage where it can be tested in the field. Assuming those tests are successful, E3 Metals will start designing a pilot plant. Success at the pilot stage will see brine concentrate shipped to an established lithium processor.

Since its founding in 2016, E3 Metals has covered a lot of ground: it identified one of the largest lithium resources in the world, developed a promising technology that previously didn’t exist before, went public in 2017 and achieved key milestones with good capital efficiency. But piloting and that final commercial step has toppled many promising ideas in every industry.

Doornbos, however, is confident that piloting will start at the end of 2019 or early 2020. Brine concentrate production is expected by 2022, with an initial output of about 10,000 tonnes per year.

“Then we’re looking at scaling up to 50,000 tonnes, which is almost a $1 billion business in process revenues,” Doornbos says. “So this can be a big business for Alberta — and that’s just one project.

“We can do multiple projects. Plus, there are opportunities for this to grow into a bigger industry as other companies tie into the business. It’s going to have a huge impact on Alberta’s GDP.”

Commercial production of lithium promises synergies with Alberta’s oil and gas industry in the sale of assets and infrastructure that is slated for abandonment or reclamation. Once lithium operations are proven, E3 Metals expects to hit the acquisition trail.

“There is a huge abandonment liability problem in Alberta, and we can pick up and use this infrastructure,” Doornbos says. “The other opportunity is that our process involves a lot of water disposal. So there’s also an opportunity to get more [oil and gas] production by pumping water into reservoirs around oil and gas operations to add pressure.”

Industry Partner:

The Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) is an industry-led network that leverages the oil and gas industry's strengths in a large-scale industrial collaboration by aligning research and technology priorities, addressing gaps, and incenting innovation. With a collaborative and inclusive approach to the energy innovation ecosystem, CRIN creates efficiencies to accelerate and deliver transformative solutions both within Alberta and the oil and across Canada.

Click here to read about all of the champions and finalists.