News center
Excellent inputs, rigorous quality assurance.

E3 Lithium tests new extraction process in Alberta

Jun 10, 2023

CEO predicts direct lithium extraction process will dominate the industry

The technology that isolates lithium from brine solution without the need for traditional evaporation methods wasn’t something Chris Doornbos was keen on when he founded E3 Lithium Ltd. in 2016.

But seven years on, the chief executive predicts the direct lithium extraction (DLE) process, which is yet to be commercially used by miners outside China, will dominate an industry looking to boost supplies of the metal to meet the rising demand for electric vehicles (EVs) in the next few years.

Subscribe now to read the latest news in your city and across Canada.

Subscribe now to read the latest news in your city and across Canada.

Create an account or sign in to continue with your reading experience.

Don't have an account? Create Account

Doornbos also hopes E3 can be a frontrunner in that transition. To that end, the company announced its pilot DLE plant in Alberta had become operational this week. Over the next year, E3 will test its DLE process and figure out whether it can extract lithium from old, depleted oil and gas reservoirs at a commercially viable rate.

“It’s one of the biggest pieces of news the company has put out,” he said. “There have been small tests done by E3 and others, but from what I know, this pilot is the first Canadian full-scale pilot that has ever operated.”

By “full-scale,” Doornbos means the pilot’s scale is big enough for E3 to rely on the resulting data to design a much bigger commercial facility. There’s still a long way to go, but the company hopes to start producing lithium by the end of 2026.

Although lithium prices have fallen by almost 50 per cent in the past 12 months, the long-term outlook from analysts remains positive. That’s because the mineral, which is used to make batteries that power EVs, is expected to play a key role in the shift away from fossil fuels.

There’s also the geopolitical perspective since countries such as the United States and Canada are looking to lessen their dependence on China for critical minerals such as lithium, nickel and copper amid rising tensions with the world’s second-largest economy.

Get the latest headlines, breaking news and columns.

By signing up you consent to receive the above newsletter from Postmedia Network Inc.

A welcome email is on its way. If you don't see it, please check your junk folder.

The next issue of Top Stories will soon be in your inbox.

We encountered an issue signing you up. Please try again

That has miners and researchers alike looking for alternative methods to supply more critical minerals.

DLE is one such process. Lithium brine is pumped into a processing unit where the lithium is extracted using methods such as ion-exchange, adsorption or solvents. The brine is then reinjected into the original water source.

Miners using traditional evaporation techniques pump the brine water from the salar (salt flat) into large ponds where evaporation can take place, resulting in piles of salt from which lithium is then extracted using a series of treatments and processing. As a result, analysts consider DLE to be more environmentally friendly since it uses less water and energy compared to evaporation.

But the technology needs to adjust for individual brine chemistries, which means each DLE process must be tailormade for each mining project. Mining analysts at Red Cloud Securities Inc. said the extraction process that may work for, say, Alpha Lithium Corp. at its Salar de Tolillar project in Argentina may not work for Grounded Lithium Corp.’s Kindersley project in Saskatchewan.

“A breakthrough by one company does not necessarily translate into blanket applications to all brine projects across the globe,” the analysts said in a note on Aug. 30.

As such, companies such as E3 are looking to partner with technology firms to develop their own solutions.

Mining giant Rio Tinto Ltd. is one company aiming to use DLE in 2024. Vancouver-based Standard Lithium Ltd. and Australia’s Lake Resources NL are operating demonstration plants in the United States and Argentina, respectively.

The main challenge with DLE is scalability, according to Red Cloud Securities. Lab tests conducted at various projects have successfully produced lithium from brine, but they don’t always mimic real-world conditions.

“That is why pilot and demonstration plant testing become important aspects of de-risking projects, as the size and scale is closer to real-world production conditions,” the analysts said.

Doornbos at E3 believes the company’s pilot test will be “robust enough” to provide data that can help design engineering and feasibility studies. It will test its own DLE solution as well as those created by other companies to ensure the best fit for commercial production.

E3 controls the mineral rights in Alberta’s Leduc Aquifer, which was discovered as a source of oil in the 1940s and then was drilled out by the 1990s, and is currently in talks with battery and automaker companies to develop strategic partnerships that can help it grow.

It currently has a market cap of about $250 million. As of 11 a.m. on Aug. 30, its shares were trading at $3.73 on the Toronto Stock Exchange, up 14 cents for the day and 20 cents since opening on Aug. 29, which is when E3 announced its pilot plant.

Doornbos expects four or five projects using the DLE method to produce lithium by the end of 2026, and he hopes E3 can be one of them.

“The landscape is going to be very different. Everyone is at about the same level of development,” he said. “We are all pushing.”

• Email: [email protected]

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

To contribute to the conversation, you need to be logged in. If you are not yet registered, create your account now - it's FREE.