Consumers first started to hear the term lithium in relation to batteries in the early 1990s. Today, the mineral’s significance is linked to electric vehicles (EVs). “Lithium is the lightest metal with the highest energy density, making it the element of choice for all battery chemistries used in EVs. Because of the demand for EVs, lithium demand is growing, and projected to continue growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 20 to 25 per cent,” explains Zach Maurer, president and CEO of Saskatchewan’s Prairie Lithium Corp. “Without the introduction of new mines, and new technologies, it is expected that lithium demand will outpace supply this decade.”
The four countries most known for lithium production are Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina. On a much lesser scale are Zimbabwe, Portugal, Brazil, Namibia, and the United States. The problem is that lithium is either extracted from salt-flat brines through a process of evaporation and chemical recovery, which is time consuming, or, recovered from ore mining, through a process that involves crushing, roasting and acid leaching, which is costly.
Maurer first started to explore the potential of lithium brine in Saskatchewan in January 2017. “I didn’t know if it was feasible, possible, or if lithium enriched brines even existed in Saskatchewan. I just started looking,” says Maurer. “After a couple months of mulling the idea and its potentials, in Spring 2017, I proposed a graduate study to the University of Regina with the purpose being to understand the origin and evolution of lithium in Saskatchewan brine. This work was performed evenings and weekends throughout 2017 and 2018. This research led to the correlation that brines that are more evaporitic, have elevated lithium concentrations over brines that have derived salinity from mineral dissolution. I then developed an exploration strategy to determine if the hypothesis was correct.”
His theory proved true. Maurer incorporated in 2019 and started to build the team, pursue mineral right acquisitions, and advance his understanding of direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology. “Raising capital to explore a new resource, using a new process, is extremely difficult,” Maurer explains. Saskatchewan is probably five to 10 years behind other lithium producing jurisdictions; however, “given the access to skilled labour, utilities and infrastructure, Saskatchewan has one of the most accessible lithium resources in the world.” Maurer goes on to say, “our robust oil, potash and agriculture industries give us the ability to access land, drill wells, and build facilities quicker than other jurisdictions . . . more high-risk capital is needed to expedite lithium production in Saskatchewan. The industry needs more wells drilled, and more DLE process research and development.
Once lithium can be proven commercially in Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan has clear regulatory advantages that can help expedite a lithium industry.” Maurer is realistic. “Lithium will likely never replace oil as an economic driver in Saskatchewan, but along with potash, uranium, helium, and other new resources coming online, it can help diversify our economy. Lithium could potentially contribute one to two billion dollars a year to our economy depending on price and production.”
Saskatchewan produces a large volume of lithium-enriched brine water as a by-product of oil and gas industry projects. Prairie Lithium is the largest active lithium brine resource and technology developer in Saskatchewan, and one of the largest active lithium brine developers in Canada.