Chris Doornbos, President, CEO and Director of E3 Lithium, introduces the company’s innovative ion exchange lithium extraction technology and discusses plans for lithium development in Alberta.
Global demand for the metal lithium has risen significantly in recent years because of its use in batteries for green technologies and electric vehicles. Whilst demand for the metal is only increasing, accelerating its supply is a complex and somewhat controversial matter for a number of reasons. One of the most prolific challenges attached to lithium extraction is the environmental impact of certain methods, causing such issues as freshwater pollution and an increase in CO2 emissions. With this being said, some lithium development companies are now working to deliver sustainable processes for lithium production.
One company championing sustainable lithium development is Canadian lithium resource and technology specialist E3 Lithium. For over five years, E3 Lithium has focused its efforts on designing and delivering its own Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology with the aim of producing lithium with low carbon emissions, utilising very little land and consuming minimal freshwater. The DLE ion-exchange technology quickly and efficiently reduces large volumes of low-grade brine into a high-grade lithium concentrate in one step, simultaneously removing nearly all impurities. This produces a very clean product for the development of high purity lithium compounds used in lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries.
With the commercialisation of its Direct Lithium Extraction technology firmly underway via an upcoming in-field pilot project, the company has recently updated its inferred resources from 7 million tonnes (Mt) to 24.3 Mt of Lithium Carbonate Equivalent (LCE). Based in Alberta, at the heart of Canada’s green revolution, E3 Lithium has outlined significant resources within its lithium permit area. Its main focus currently is its Clearwater Project, which is being developed on the back of Alberta’s mature and sophisticated oil industry.
The Innovation Platform spoke to Chris Doornbos, President, CEO and Director of E3 Lithium, to find out more about the company’s strategic plans in its bid to reach its goal of commercial lithium production by 2026.
Can you briefly detail the background of E3 Lithium? How has the company developed and what are your key offerings and strategic goals?
Founded in 2017, E3 Lithium focuses on the development of a prolific lithium asset in Alberta, Canada. We recently changed our name from E3 Metals to E3 Lithium to reflect our hyperfocus on lithium, as opposed to metals in general.
The company has evolved in two main ways. We started with mineral tenure in Alberta and quickly realised that a specific technology was required to extract lithium from the brines. At the time, the technology available was insufficient to achieve what we desired, leading us to begin development of our own technology as a ‘plan B’.
As our work seemingly started to accelerate beyond existing innovations from our peers, we focused our efforts on advancing and commercialising the technology. Now that we feel comfortable and confident in our offering, we have come back to the resource to start developing it. We have made significant progress on the technology, which is being produced and tested in our facility, and plan to begin a pilot project in the near future.
In terms of location, what is the potential for lithium extraction in Alberta and Western Canada? What benefits does this offer for your company?
In Alberta, lithium is found in deep saline brines, often called formation waters, that were discovered due to historic oil and gas production. Alberta has the advantage of having an already well-established industry for oil and gas, with an experienced and skilled workforce able to repurpose and build on the existing infrastructure.
Alberta and Western Canada are set to be major lithium jurisdictions in the future. The lithium industry in Alberta is nascent today and is being developed by many companies.
E3 Lithium is in a strong position to support this development as we have the primary lithium extraction technology required by us and many of our peers. We use a version of what is often referred to as Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE), called ion exchange. Ion exchange is used all over the world for selectively extracting metals from liquid, with our metal of interest being lithium. After our in-field pilot project demonstrates our lithium extraction technology on a commercial scale, our plan is to put it into commercial use on the first lithium production facility in Alberta. We could also then license it to other resource holders to support a broader industry locally, while also generating revenue through royalties. Looking at where we are now, I see Alberta and Western Canada playing a major part in the solution for the giant supply shortage of lithium that is on the horizon.
How is E3 Lithium working to establish a strong domestic battery supply chain within Canada?
Fundamentally, what Canada does very well is develop its mineral resources. I am very happy to see the movement into the downstream battery vertical. Major organisations, including POSCO, BASF and Stellantis-LG, as well as smaller start-up companies, have chosen to build factories in Canada for the development of battery components. This signals the start of the battery industry coming to Canada.
There is only a total of about 4,000 tonnes per year of lithium production in all of North America. It is estimated that North America will need approximately 500,000 tonnes per year of lithium hydroxide by 2030. Therefore, the area must somehow find 496,000 tonnes of lithium per year by 2030.
We are working towards E3 being able to offer a fairly robust component of that potential supply. Looking at it from a broader perspective, until now projects producing lithium were not designed for batteries. The large global lithium producers never built their projects to produce battery-grade products, and therefore must carry out a secondary refining and conversion process to deliver products suitable for use in batteries. One of the advantages that we have, through hindsight and being a relative newcomer to the market, is that we can deliver a process to enable us to be a battery supply provider directly from our facility in Alberta.
I am personally passionate about building a strong domestic supply chain, and one of our long-term goals is to produce batteries here in Alberta.
How do you ensure that your lithium extraction offerings and processes are in line with sustainability requirements?
Sustainability is very important to E3. Our ion exchange process uses a closed-loop system and eliminates the need for evaporation ponds, mining waste dumps, open pit mines, or tailing ponds. We use ion exchange to extract lithium from brine, which consumes just a small amount of energy.
We have no interaction with fresh water sources as the lithium-enriched brine is taken from a deep, salty aquifer where it is returned once the lithium has been extracted. For some big lithium developers, freshwater consumption has caused major issues as communities have been opposed to the consumption or pollution of freshwater in certain areas by mines or salars. Our technology offers a solution to this problem.
Carbon is usually the biggest talking point when it comes to sustainability. Our preliminary economic assessment (PEA) contemplated an electrical-based processing method, which means that over 90% of our carbon dioxide output would come from electricity. Deploying a low-to-zero-carbon source of power to the project keeps our carbon footprint extremely low. Eventually, our goal is to reach net zero carbon for our project.
You have recently formed a strategic agreement with Imperial Oil Ltd on a pilot lithium project in Alberta. Why is this new agreement so important?
The agreement with Imperial Oil is threefold. They invested in the company to financially support the pilot project. They are also supporting it technically, by providing an advisory group that is allowing us to tap into their skills and expertise. The agreement also provides an option for E3 to acquire Imperial-owned freehold lands in our Clearwater Project area.
The interesting thing about Imperial is they discovered this aquifer, with the first well drilled into an adjoining aquifer to the Leduc in 1947. That discovery is famous in Alberta because it started the oil rush in the province. Imperial sold out of it in the 1990s, likely due to declining oil levels. What has always been there, however, is lithium-rich brine. Imperial offers a valuable skillset for us to utilise, having a background and history of the development of this asset.
As they were the main developer of this aquifer in Alberta, Imperial/Exxon hold a significant amount of freehold mineral rights in the province. While these are not required under Alberta legislation to be able to produce lithium, having access to them consolidates our land position and secures the development in the joint land area to E3.
This is a very exciting agreement as it sees one of the largest energy companies in the world diversifying into lithium and choosing E3 to do so.
In June, it was announced that E3’s lithium was used to create its first successful battery through a collaboration with Pure Lithium. How significant is this for the progression of your business? What is next for this collaboration?
This is the first time that lithium from our aquifer has been used in a battery application, after Pure Lithium made metal with our lithium. This means there is now an E3 battery, which is very exciting for us as it demonstrates proof of concept all the way to an end-user final product.
The aim of the collaboration is to allow us to understand how commercial lithium metal production using E3’s lithium would work. We are spending the next six to nine months carrying out a series of tests in which we will provide Pure Lithium with our lithium concentrate for them to use to produce lithium metal. The end result of this is testing that metal in battery form.
In July, E3 Lithium announced it has increased its inferred mineral resource in the Bashaw District to 23.4 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE). Can you elaborate on this further and explain why this is such an important development?
This news is significant because it represents a more than tripling of our total inferred resources from 7 million tonnes to 24.3. The Bashaw District is 23.4 million tonnes, which we believe is one of the largest single lithium resources, affording us lots of opportunity to focus our development on this area. We also have 0.9 million tonnes in our Rocky area, making our total inferred resource 24.3 million tonnes. We believe there is enough brine held in our aquifer to produce at an equivalent rate of 200,000 tonnes per year for 50 years. We are not going to start at 200,000 tonnes – we will grow over time to reach this goal. As mentioned in our PEA, 20,000 tonnes per year is a reasonable starting point. However, it does offer the opportunity to expand our production from this area to grow to be a global leader in lithium products.
What will the rest of 2022 and the coming years hold for E3 Lithium?
Our main focus right now is working towards the first phase of commercial operations for E3. There are many milestones we hope to accomplish over the next 12-18 months. These include drilling our first ever lithium development wells, which are now complete. These wells will assist us in the potential upgrade of a portion of our resources to measured and indicated. We are working hard on getting our pilot plant designed and the sorbent manufactured to kick off the scaling up of our ion exchange technology. We are also testing various third-party technologies for the production of lithium hydroxide.
All of this work supports the engineering and design of our first phase of production, which will be outlined within a pre-feasibility study (PFS), set to be completed at some point next year. Once complete, the PFS will outline the conversion of our resources to reserves. They will be North America’s first lithium brine reserves, which is significant both for E3 and Alberta.
There is a lot of positive momentum surrounding E3 with a lot more to come. We have built a solid track record of meeting the milestones we set and will continue to drive our business forward to establish Alberta and Canada as a significant global producer of responsibly produced lithium.
Please note, this article will also appear in the eleventh edition of our quarterly publication.