University of Alberta spinoff company could help unlock a lithium industry for Alberta
Alberta’s oil and gas fields could be in store for another natural resource boom thanks to a University of Alberta-based lithium extraction technology with the ability to unlock the increasingly valuable metal.
Faculty of Science geochemist Dan Alessi, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and former post-doctoral fellow Salman Safari have spun off their technology to extract lithium from oilfield brines in Alberta into a startup called Recion Technologies.
Alessi, who holds the Encana Endowed Chair in Water Resources, explained the world’s demand for lithium is growing every day and is especially driven by increased lithium use in electronic battery technologies found in computers, cellphones and electric cars.
And while demand grows, the traditional sources of lithium—found in hard rock mines around the world, or in brine pools known as salars, found primarily in South America—are intensely environmentally intrusive.
“We’re trying to fill that supply gap that’s on the horizon—coming in the next decade—with alternative sources of lithium,” said Alessi.
An exacting process for extracting lithium
It happens that most oil and gas wells in Alberta produce very saline waters, often five to 10 times saltier than the ocean, deep in the lithosphere. That brine, noted Alessi, is also home to a “dusting” of lithium with concentrations often between 50 and 150 parts per million.
“On face, it’s not a great source of lithium,” said Alessi.
“But Alberta already has the oil and gas infrastructure, which would otherwise cost millions to install.”
He added that the water that comes up with the oil and gas would normally be a waste material.
“We take the water, recover the lithium and return the water for disposal, and there is a very substantial side stream of lithium revenue that could be generated.”
Alessi likens the search for such small quantities of lithium in a sea of brine to looking for a needle in a haystack. For that, he and Safari have developed a highly selective process that separates out the lithium.