New tech aims to extract lithium from oilfield waste

by Julie Matchett
Close up of lithium being poured from one gloved hand to another.

Lithium is plentiful in Alberta and demand for the valuable mineral is on the rise. Some innovative companies are seeking to develop greener extraction methods using oilfield wastes. — Photo courtesy CBC

A vital component of electric vehicle batteries, mining for lithium can come at a high environmental cost. Seeking to develop greener extraction methods, some Alberta companies are partnering with an unlikely ally—the oil and gas industry.

Summit Nanotech uses nanotechnology, a science that works with materials at the molecular or atomic level, to selectively filter lithium out of the wasted saltwater brine used in oil wells.

Amanda Hall, president of Summit Nanotech said, “Working with the oil and gas industry we can take advantage of the infrastructure already existing in Alberta.”

Her company hopes to test the technology on oilfield sites by the end of this year, and once they’re up and running, will set up modular units near well heads to filter out the metal and provide it to whoever owns the land’s mineral rights - at a fee.

Daniel Alessi, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, said other companies, like E3 Metals, are also working to develop different extraction methods.

Alessi explained that while any resource extraction technology will have some degree of a negative footprint, there are options to utilize wasted natural gas or even geothermal energy to power the extraction.

With companies like Tesla increasing their output of electric vehicles, demand is a sure thing. According to the Canadian Lithium Association, there are about 3.6 million tonnes of lithium in the province of Alberta.

"The big question these days is whether it's going to be economically feasible," Alessi said. "Unless somebody comes with a magic new battery technology, the outlook for this region, the lithium extraction, the lithium industry is pretty promising," Alessi said.

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