Former Oil & Gas Geophysicist Develops Improved Lithium Extraction Approach
Amanda Hall looked at the common methods used for direct extraction of lithium today and determined they were overdue for an update.
The head of a Calgary-based start-up called the extraction technologies “archaic" in a recent interview with the Daily Oil Bulletin.
“They are from 30 years ago. I knew we could be doing better based on everything I had learned in the oil and gas sector and mining sector in Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
The geophysicist spent time in both sectors from the mid-2000s, up until 2018 when she started Summit Nanotech Corporation, a company focused on a direct lithium extraction technology dubbed denaLi, that Hall came up with.
Hall’s transition into this space was motivated by her ability to carry over existing expertise while advancing an improvement to lithium extraction. She estimates about 75 per cent of her now 70 employees previously worked in the oil and gas sector, either in the field or downtown Calgary.
She wanted to validate different technologies that could apply to the extraction of lithium.
“I researched, researched, researched, and taught myself a little nanotechnology,” said the Summit Nanotech founder and chief executive officer.
Hall has a biology degree in addition to a geophysics degree, meaning she’s used to thinking at the quantum level.
“Nanotechnology wasn’t that big of a leap,” she continued. “Physics is physics at any scale, so it’s not a big deal to transition in that science realm — and then came up a method to extract lithium that would be more sustainable, more economic and faster than the existing methods.”
To accomplish this extraction, salt water from underground is pulled to the surface. The legacy process, said Hall, leans on use of evaporation ponds for solar evaporation over an 18-month period.
“In the process of doing that, you lose 60 per cent of the product,” she added. “ … Even once it is out from underground, the recovery factor is 40 per cent, if you’re lucky. I thought that was pretty ridiculous, given the technology we have available to us today.”
Summit Nanotech’s technology uses lithium-selective nano materials that pull lithium out of the solution. This prevents settling out and loss, making for a more high-purity yield.
“Everything that isn’t lithium just moves right past and it’s reinjected back underground,” said Hall.
“Then, to get the lithium off of our materials, we just do a secondary step where we rinse the lithium off and move in downstream for further processing,” she added. “But the materials are long-lasting, reusable. We can reactivate them in certain periods of time. It’s like using a brand-new material every time. So, they are really robust and easy to operate with within the field.”
In addition to yield, Summit Nanotech’s approach offers a capital expenditure advantage.
“ …We are shrinking the footprint 26 times to a small operation rather than 26 times as big [using] evaporation ponds,” said Hall. “So, the capex to get to production is about half of what it would be in a traditional mine.”
The company has a pilot operating in Chile, where its full end-to-end process operates within a sea container. Six pilot partners are involved, trucking brine to its site.
“ … We process the brine, turn it around and give them back the product and the waste,” said Hall. A report tracking any “hiccups” with the brine follows.
“We learn from the pilot so we can design larger units that go right to their mine sites,” she added.
The pilot started in summer 2022, with objectives for one of the aforementioned partners already hit. This process takes about a month and a half to two months for each partner.
“We will be in the field for at least a year,” Hall said. “But we can start designing the larger units right away, as soon as we are done with each customer.”
When asked if the company will look at opportunities in other jurisdictions once the pilot is complete, she singled out Argentina.
“The best places for our technology to operate are Chile and Argentina and some places in the U.S.A., and it all [has] to do with the composition of the brine,” Hall said.
“We will eventually move back to Canada and deal with oilfield brines but not anytime in the next few years because we need our fastest path to revenue …”
Technology growth in Alberta
With that said, being based in Alberta still makes sense.
“The talent [is] here — and we like being Canadian, we get a lot of support from the Canadian government and Alberta government,” said Hall.
This includes Hall earning a $1-million prize through the federal government’s Women in Cleantech challenge.
“A lot of the technology development is happening in Calgary, but the deployment and operations are in South America,” she continued, adding the company has a subsidiary in Chile.
“So, we have usually anywhere from 20 to 30 people on-site every day operating. And that is getting bigger and bigger down there. We will build out our Chilean operations and company, but at the same time, continue to develop the technology here in Calgary.”
Summit Nanotech has raised about US$65 million to date. With pre-seed and angel contributions, that total rises to about $72 million.
The first raise (Series A) was $14 million, and the second raise (Series A2) was $50 million.
“Different investors are interested at different stages of growth because you derisk at different stages,” explained Hall. “The ones that have invested in us so far are willing to take the risk in an early stage startup and then support our growth.”
Investors from the U.S. and Singapore led Series A of investment and Canadian firms, BDC Capital’s Climate Tech Fund and Evok Innovations, led Series A2.
“Summit’s ground-breaking technology addresses the growing global need for lithium with a rapidly scalable, low-cost, and environmentally friendly approach which can unlock value in a wide variety of high-volume brines,” said Naynika Chaubey, partner, Evok Innovations in a news release in January.
Series A investors include Capricorn’s Technology Impact Fund, Xora Innovation, and BHP Ventures.
- New Energy