McKercher Leaderboard March 2021
Future

Braving the Elements: Mining Industry Diversification Rises in Saskatchewan

Royal Helium Ltd. Drilling at Climax

Are you ready to water your garden using residual fluid from your hydrogen-powered vehicle? Several innovative new ventures in the province offer hopeful previews of possible futures.

Hydrogen: like gold for zero emissions

Proton COO Seta Afshordi

Proton Technologies has received approval for a first-of-its-kind hydrogen extraction project. The project is the first to be endorsed by the Saskatchewan Petroleum Innovation Incentive.

The company has a process patent for technologies that will repurpose orphaned oil and gas wells in the province. Its a combination of two proven technologies. “One of them is injecting oxygen into oil reservoirs or hydro-carbon reservoirs. The other is using a membrane to separate the hydrogen from the gas,” says Proton COO Seta Afshordi. The process leaves carbon in the ground and produces zero emissions.

Based in Alberta, Proton Technologies chose Saskatchewan to pilot this world-first project because the province saw the advantages of the technology. “Saskatchewan has a great geology and infrastructure for what we’re proposing,” says Afshordi.

Historically, hydrogen has been used in fertilizer production, rocket fuel, feed stock, in the oil and fuel industries and in the medical field. “But we’ve never really looked at hydrogen as a real fuel to either make electricity, warm up our houses, run fuel turbines, or run our appliances,” says Afshordi. She estimates a minimum of 25,000 metric tons of hydrogen per day could be produced by the province for the next 10 years if they really focus on converting all of their reservoirs to hydrogen reservoirs.

Lithium: More than a mood enhancer

Saskatchewan is emerging as a potential player in the coming electric vehicle (EV) revolution. Founded in 2019, Prairie Lithium is poised to begin mining lithium for use in batteries to power EVs.

Lithium is sourced from brine associated with the province’s oil and gas operations. When Prairie Lithium founder and CEO, Zach Maurer completed his geology degree, oil was sitting at $28 a barrel. He began looking outside the oil and gas industry for opportunities in the energy industry. “One of the elements that kept topping the list was lithium, for its ability to store large amounts of energy,” Maurer says.

Maurer proposed a graduate study to the University of Regina to discover the origin and evolution of lithium in Saskatchewan. The study focused on the Bakken and Frobisher aquifers, two very prolific oil-producing formations in southeast Saskatchewan. The results pointed to opportunity.

Maurer found a couple of partners including PhD chemists and hydrogeologists to help shape the company. After securing some seed money, Prairie Lithium purchased their initial exploration properties in the west-central and southeast parts of the province, and developed their patent pending lithium extraction technology.

“With almost every major auto manufacturer committing to go fully electric by 2030 to 2035, the demand growth in lithium for EV batteries is astronomical,” Maurer says.

Helium: Not just hot air

When retailer Party City reported a helium shortage in 2019, eyebrows shot up in certain quarters. The subsequent sale of a couple of orphaned oil wells as helium wells stoked more local interest.

“We started peeling back the layers of the onion,” says Andrew Davidson, CEO of Royal Helium. They discovered that Saskatchewan is a prime jurisdiction for helium. “Helium is only created through the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. That’s why its here in elevated concentrations.”

The helium industry maintains a fairly low profile beyond balloons, but Davidson says it’s an enormous global industry that’s been in production since the 60s. “The biggest single use of helium in North America is in MRI machines and in pulmonary tests,” Davidson says. Outside of healthcare, it is used in the high-tech industry for the manufacture of microchips, semi conductors, and in space exploration.

Royal Helium saw a supply and demand gap opening and pricing that was spiking. As a long-time oil and gas man, Davidson felt the business side looked remarkably interesting. The method for drilling helium wells is the same as that for oil and gas well. The markets for helium looked reasonably stable and long term. “We formed a company and started looking at old oil well tests that returned any values for helium gas in their analysis and started grabbing land around them,” Davidson says.

The company now owns a million acres of helium rights in southern Saskatchewan. Three wells at Climax are in production testing. The next stop for production testing is near Bengough.

Carbon Copy

Interest in carbon capture has ramped up recently, not least from the likes of Elon Musk. Earlier this year, the billionaire boss of Tesla announced a contest to discover new ways to capture carbon dioxide (CO2). The four-year global competition promises $50 million to the team to find the best way to pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans and lock it away permanently.

The City of Estevan recently invited Musk to visit the world’s first Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project at Boundary Dam. Since launch in 2014, the project has captured and sequestered four million metric tons of carbon dioxide, says Beth (Hardy) Valliaho, vice-president of the CCS Knowledge Centre. The Centre has made and hosted many international visits to share knowledge about the technology. “This is not a technology you buy off the shelf. It’s an integrated process,” she says.

The province of Alberta recently asked the federal government for $30 billion in funds to explore carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), suggesting there’s no way to reach Canada’s net-zero emissions target by 2050 without it. “We’re working directly with the Alberta government now to try and map out a path for many CCS projects there within the next 10 years,” says Valliaho.

CCS is a needed transitional technology. “You can’t get to net zero starting from ground zero,” Valliaho says.

Stay Tuned

Innovative industries and technologies like these present exciting opportunities to lift and diversify the Saskatchewan economy, save costs using existing infrastructure, elevate green values, and create jobs.