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The New Elements: Lithium

The Path to a Viable Lithium Industry in Saskatchewan

In the first of our new series The New Elements, writer Hilary Klassen examines lithium (one of Canada’s identified critical minerals) and the potential it offers the Saskatchewan mining sector and the economy.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the top two trending terms on Twitter in Q1 of 2021 were lithium and electric vehicles (EVs). As the world moves toward greener energy sources, governments and automakers are uniting in support of the EV movement. EVs rely on lithium-ion batteries to power them. Global demand for lithium has doubled in the last five years. The global fleet of EVs is expected to reach 300 million by 2030. One source refers to the current revolution as a “global battery arms race.” Current production methods and technologies will be unable to meet the demand.

Saskatchewan stands poised to become a leader in the lithium industry in Canada. “With a track record of innovation, expertise and global success in our provincial mining and energy sectors, Saskatchewan has considerable advantages for the development of lithium,” says Minister of Energy and Resources, Bronwyn Eyre.

Saskatchewan lithium is sourced from brine and it’s here in large quantities. Two western Canadian companies, Prairie Lithium in Saskatchewan and E3 Metals in Alberta, agree the opportunity is huge and the economic potential is massive. Both are betting heavily on success in bringing lithium to market. But is the lithium industry viable here in Saskatchewan?

“The short answer to that is cost-effective mineral processing,” says Zach Maurer, CEO of Prairie Lithium. “If we can do that then we’ve got a viable industry.” Part of achieving cost-effectiveness involves getting the resource and the technology through the proper de-risking steps.

As with any new venture, companies must overcome some challenges, such as:

  • Spreading the word—lithium is still mainly unknown in the province
  • Developing the technology
  • Getting the technology de-risked
  • Achieving proof of scalability
  • Establishing the market (no supply chain currently exists)

“At current and forecasted prices, it appears quite feasible to process lithium here. In terms of the battery supply chain, lithium mines are really specialty chemical plants,” says Maurer. “As soon as you get the lithium into a concentrated chemical form you can work with lithium chloride or lithium sulfate which can then be readily converted into a lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate.” At this point the high-quality product is handed over to battery manufacturers.

North America and Europe are extremely dependent on lithium imports, Maurer observes. “The US is ramping up their lithium-ion battery manufacturing capacity, and with that they’re also going to have to ramp up their imports of lithium from overseas. There’s a huge lithium deficit in North America and a mine here in Saskatchewan could feed right into that.” U.S. president Joe Biden recently announced the U.S. is looking to Canada to help supply the minerals needed for EV battery manufacture. Canada and the U.S. have pledged to work together to build a North American supply chain for lithium.

Processing capability depends on government support and capital infusions. A lithium processing plant would ideally be located as close to the resource as possible. “Saskatchewan is a very industry-friendly jurisdiction, given all the years of oil and gas and potash exploration in the province. The regulations and the process to develop these facilities is quite well laid out. We have the framework in place,” Maurer says. The brine mines will not be
“monstrosities.” They will have a significantly smaller footprint than what people might imagine as a typical mine. “It’s really just going to look like a large shop in the field with tanks, and that’s going to be a specialty lithium processing facility.”

Lithium mining methods vary. “Greenbushes,” an open pit mine in Australia, is the world’s largest hard rock mine. Nemaska is a hard rock open pit mine being developed in Quebec. In South America, evaporation ponds are used in the “Lithium Triangle,” but concerns are being raised about water usage and possible leakage of toxic chemicals.

Both Prairie Lithium and E3 Metals are developing and testing their own proprietary new technology known as “Direct Lithium Extraction” (DLE). The process selectively removes lithium and returns the brine and any impurities back underground using a conventional oil and gas process, Maurer says. Modern extraction methods like these could revolutionize how battery-grade lithium is produced, says Chris Doornbos, CEO of E3 Metals. “Our DLE process purifies and concentrates the lithium in one step, critical to producing battery grade lithium products from the back of the production site. This is not the norm in the industry. DLE processing is much less expensive relative to the lithium industry and is likely to become the mainstay for new lithium projects.” In the push to clean energy, it is anticipated that greater focus on environmental, social and government (ESG) conscious investing will hold people to account for industry practices.

“Projections are for around 500,000 tonnes of lithium demand in the U.S. by 2030, 80 to 90 per cent being lithium hydroxide. The current total North American production of all lithium products is 4,000 tonnes; local lithium supply is desperately needed.” Chris Doornbos, E3 Metals.

Lithium is on Canada’s “critical minerals” list, signaling our country’s commitment to clean technologies and sustainable economic growth. E3 Metals is part of a task force with the Minister of Natural Resources, auto industry CEOs and others asking how Canada can maximize the EV opportunity. “Having battery grade hydroxide available may drive the larger battery and EV industry towards Western Canada,” says Doornbos.

Canada’s 2021 Budget proposes $9.6 million toward a Critical Battery Minerals Centre of Excellence as well as $36.8 million for research and development on critical battery mineral processing and refining expertise. There’s also dollars for charging station infrastructure. Lithium is not specifically mentioned.

The 2019 Saskatchewan Growth Plan included support for lithium and the development of cost-effective extraction technologies. Assistance is available to projects through the Saskatchewan Petroleum Innovation Incentive (SPII), the Saskatchewan Advantage Innovation Fund (SAIF), and the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC).

The lithium industry in Saskatchewan has the advantage of accessing existing infrastructure. “It takes time and money. Everything is still very early on. That’s why it’s so exciting and there’s so much interest around it. It’s all brand new and groundbreaking and frontier,” says Maurer.

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