As the demand for lithium grows, so too does the danger that environmentally unsustainable methods of mining will be increasingly used.
Calgary’s Summit Nanotech has put into production a method of lithium extraction that has the potential to green the lithium mining industry. Their process reduces land use, removes 90 per cent of waste, and cuts in half greenhouse gas emissions.
It also promises to free local markets from dependence on lithium conversion in China, and build value chains for customers in Europe and North America.
“We really kept sustainability at the core of our decision making as we were developing the technology,” said Amanda Hall, CEO for Summit Nanotech.
The company will be sending two pilot extraction units to Chile and California starting in January.
Lithium ions in water are identified, and then extracted by the company’s technology.
They use beads and membranes to immobilize lithium ions so they can be pulled from the water. These methods operate at the nano-scale, and have real world implications for the use of acids and freshwater as part of the extraction process.
“One of the most important aspects of lithium extraction that we needed to address was the use of fresh water,” said Hall.
“We developed technology that uses no fresh water, and that was one of the key differentiators for us compared to our competitors.”
As a result of not requiring the use of fresh water, waste is reduced by 90 per cent. Compared to traditional lithium mining, land use is 26 times less.
The process is also low pressure and low heat compared to other lithium extraction technologies.
“Much to my engineers’ chagrin, because they said ‘you can’t have it all Amanda?’ and I said, ‘yes, we can—we can do it all,'” said Hall.
“We’ve got lower greenhouse gases, no fresh water use, and 90 per cent less waste in the process,” she said.
Extraction as a service
Summit Nanotech isn't planning on acting as a traditional mining corporation. Instead, they're acting as an extraction service for customers who have lithium reserves.
"If you owned an asset, or some land with lithium underground, you would drill a well and then we'd show up with our technology, and we take the brine from underground, pull the lithium out for you, and charge you a fee for doing it," said Hall.
Customers would then be free to sell the lithium on the market themselves.
Over the past year, the price of lithium has grown from approximately $8,000 USD a ton to $25,000.
For now, the company is focusing on markets in the United States and in South America.
The Lithium Triangle, so-named because of the salt flats that contain high concentrations of lithium within brine, was of immediate interest to Hall.
"I said to the team, 'we're not gonna monkey around in Canada with this. We're going straight to the big leagues and going after the good lithium,'" she said.
"It's just trickier in Canada, because the lithium concentrations are so low here."
Lithium extraction from oilsands wastewater requires pre-treatment not needed elsewhere. Other companies such as Vancouver-based MGX Minerals have explored the oilsands as a source for the metal.
The pilot unit built for Chile cost the company $2 million. The unit destined for California cost $5 million.
Hall said that at the current market prices, companies can expect profitability on capital expenditures in about 18 months.
Expected lifetime production for Summit Nanotech extraction units is 20 years.
Building sustainable value chains
The demand for lithium is such that electric vehicle manufacturers have already contacted Summit Nanotech.
There is considerable demand for shortening supply chains and dependence on foreign nations for energy storage.
"It's a dangerous position to be in a country if you don't have access to critical metal or mineral reserve that keeps keeps your country going," said Hall.
"Storing renewable energy and transportation is more and more becoming about electric vehicles and batteries," she said. "Having local locally sourced lithium going into local processing and manufacturing companies that are creating the batteries—that's really important to keep it domestic."
Hall said there has been interest in turning raw lithium into cathodes for batteries, such that supply chains don't have to rely on Chinese manufacturers.
"We've got a lot of customers in lots of different countries who are willing to pay for pilots, and pay for demonstrations," said Hall.
"We're finding that the governments are really supportive now of technologies like ours, because they can see the difference that it makes," she said. "We're seeing that our technology unlocks a lot of unconventional reserves—the reserves that weren't economically available to the marketplace originally."
Recognized for sustainability
Being actually green, and not just greenwashing, was one of the fundamental goals for Hall.
Summit Nanotech was awarded the Solar Impulse Foundation's Efficient Solutions Label. This was awarded to 1,000 companies globally which met rigorous assessments of environmental and economic sustainability.
Only 77 companies in Canada have been awarded the Efficient Solutions Label.
The foundation was named after the first airplane to circumnavigate the globe using only solar power.
"To me, that's the most impressive award we've ever won because it shows that we're sustainable, and that we're not just greenwashing—we're the real deal," said Hall.
Overall the company has raised over $20 million in funding, and has grown to 27 employees.
Women in Cleantech Challenge winner
Because of her ability to raise capital and meet targeted milestones, Hall was the grand prize winner for the Women in Cleantech Challenge.
The Grand Prize of $1 million was awarded in November.
For three years, six women CEOs, chosen from 150, engaged in the intensive competition put on by the Canadian Government and MaRS.
"It's been the fight of my professional life," said Hall.
"Every quarter, we had to report back to the government and MaRS on how well we achieved against the goals that we set, and so they just increasingly got harder and harder and harder," she said.
"At the end of it all, they judged us on invest ability—so the company that had gone the furthest in their milestones and had become the most investable company was the winner."
MaRS is a Toronto based non-profit focused on helping start-ups commercialize products and scale-up. During the competition, the competitors recieved $250,000 in federal laboratory support and stipends for travel costs.
Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Natural Resources, said on the competition that "diversity of thought is critical to innovation, and that’s why supporting more women entrepreneurs is more important than ever."