Alberta’s first lithium production plant and possibly a glimpse of the province’s next big industry was officially opened in central Alberta on Thursday.
It is a pilot project for Calgary-based E3 Lithium Ltd. and designed to test the technology used to most efficiently extract lithium from brine deep underground and process it into a battery-ready product. The data collected is expected to lay the groundwork for commercial-sized operations that could one day produce up to 150,000 tonnes of lithium a year, enough for the batteries of 2.2 million electric vehicles.
“I really, truly believe this direct lithium extraction field pilot plant starts a new era for Alberta,” said E3 Lithium president and CEO Chris Doornbos at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the pilot plant east of Olds.
“The success of this pilot is a catalyst for a new industry in Alberta. It opens up the possibility for the province to become a global lithium destination.”
Early results from the pilot plant, which will produce lithium hydroxide monohydrate, have been encouraging, he said.
“We are producing the concentrate, and it is as we expected. So, we’re very excited to see results as expected coming out of this today.
“Right now, anything we produce that is what we expect is a complete success for us because we’ve done a lot of work leading up to this.”
Much of the world’s lithium is produced in China, where the brine is pumped to the surface and left in huge pools to evaporate naturally before the lithium is extracted
E3 Lithium’s technology extracts lithium from brine using technologies such as ion-exchange and its production facilities require a much smaller footprint. The company has access to about 16 million tonnes of lithium carbonate in the Leduc Aquifer, which runs from Edmonton to Calgary passing 2.5 km below the Olds and Torrington areas.
Doornbos is hoping to have a full-scale commercial plant producing 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes of lithium per year operating in three years. Based on its resource of 16 million tonnes, the company believes it could produce 150,000 tonnes of lithium per year in several facilities. That would put E3 Lithium in the front ranks of global producers.
Alberta Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean believes lithium could become a bigger industry than oil and gas.
“Lithium is something the world is demanding right now,” said Jean, who was at Thursday’s ceremony.
“We believe that lithium could be one of the biggest industries going forward in Alberta. We’re excited about it because oil and gas is obviously in some ways coming to the end of its life cycle for efficiencies, as least as far as combustion engines.”
Jean said the best way government can support the industry is not to pick winners and losers but to create a level playing field so companies can succeed and grow.
“One thing we need to do is get in quantities where it’s going to be commercially viable to transport it to other jurisdictions. From all indications, it appears it’s well on its way to do that.”
Mountain View County Reeve Angela Aalbers says the lithium operation boosts the tax base while bringing a diversified new industry into the region.
“Mountain View County does have a huge agriculture and oil and gas background so we thinks it fits really well with the skill set we have within the county,” she said, adding there may also be opportunities to work with Olds College.
“Overall, I think it’s going to be a great fit for Mountain View County.”
– This story was updated on Sept. 8, 2023 to clarify projected lithium production numbers.