Oct. 17, 2022

Alberta sits on high quantity of element essential to the energy transition: lithium

Sathish Ponnurangam explains why you’ll be hearing about this element a lot in the coming years
An increase of lithium will be needed to produce the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars
An increase of lithium will be needed to produce the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars. Colourbox

For those of a certain vintage, lithium probably reminds you of the grunge rock jam by Nirvana.

But, thanks to new advances being made by startups in Alberta, lithium could soon be known as the province’s next big resource.

“There’s no question lithium will be important in our energy transition,” says Dr. Sathish Ponnurangam, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering.

A soft metal and light element, lithium has been a key component in energy storage devices that last decades, including lithium-ion batteries which will be used increasingly in electric cars.

“Considering the energy crisis we have now, the switch to renewable will require energy storage solutions, it is unavoidable,” says Ponnurangam. “One of the mainstay energy storage solutions for mobility systems is the lithium-ion battery.”

There are three types of lithium sources in the world: brines from salt lakes (which provide the most significant source of the metal), underground formation waters, and mineral resources.

In Alberta, the main source of lithium are these formation waters, which can be found in abandoned oil and gas wells, active wells, and in geothermal formations, an area UCalgary is heavily invested in.

Recently, Calgary resource company E3 Lithium, whose executive contains multiple UCalgary alumni, has been pulling formation water, or brine, out of wells in the Leduc formation and testing their technology, which extracts the lithium from the water.

The issue, Ponnurangam says, is that these formation waters tend to have low concentrations of lithium, around 75 milligrams per litre maximum.

“Alberta has one of the largest volumes of Li-containing formation water,” he says. “We have so much of this formation water, but there’s a smaller concentration of lithium in it.”

The puzzle companies will need to solve is how to extract just the lithium from the waters which contain multiple other monovalent and divalent ions like sodium, potassium, and calcium, among others, and then inject the water back into the formations.

Ponnurangam says the ideal solution would be a modular approach, with a vehicle going around to all the wells and formations, extracting the lithium and then pumping the rest of the water back right away, which would also be the cheapest option for extraction. 

“Developing the technologies to handle such a low concentration in high volumes is a challenge,” he says.

It’s the challenge companies like E3 and other startups across Alberta are currently tackling: How to extract with the least amount of energy and material input.

One way to make the process even cheaper, according to Ponnurangam, is to find a solution where not only lithium, but also other useful, low-concentration elements like strontium and boron, can be extracted from the water at the same time.

Whoever can figure out how to extract the lithium will certainly be looking at a profit, as the demand for it will only increase as electric cars and other electric engines become more and more popular.

Lithium is not the only resource to keep an eye on for the energy transition. Ponnurangam says Alberta is also sitting on a huge amount of vanadium, mainly from oil and gas operations.

Vanadium is used in redox flow batteries, which have massive energy storage capacities, so they are used in grid-scale energy storage in solar and wind farms.

“It’s a resource that, if we start extracting it from our oil and gas operations, can make those operations more economically attractive,” says Ponnurangam.