Calgary geophysicist leading way to 'greener' lithium mining gains attention from Elon Musk, investors


Amanda Hall was on top of a mountain in Tibet when inspiration struck. 

"I saw a Tibetan monk reach into his robe and pull out an iPhone," Hall told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"If there's an iPhone at the top of a mountain in Tibet, where isn't there an iPhone on this planet? And then it just got me thinking about batteries and battery technology and energy and how we store that energy."

On her return to Calgary, the accomplished geophysicist began looking into a better, greener way to mine lithium — the essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, which power electric cars and smartphones.

This led to her founding the company, Summit Nanotech in 2018 and developing nanotechnology, which works with materials at the molecular or atomic level to selectively filter lithium out of the wasted saltwater brine used in oil wells.

It's completely different from the way lithium is traditionally mined.

"I really dug into the history of of lithium mining and where it started and how we do it today, and I realized it hadn't changed in 30 years," Hall said.

How it works

Lithium is usually mined through hard rock mining — where the rocks are ground up and dissolved — or through brine mining, which is similar to drilling a well.

However, Hall's method goes a different way. 

"I took everything I learned from the oil and gas sector in Canada, and what I'd learned about nanotechnology … and I came up with a way to extract the lithium," she said.

The company has a lab in Bearspaw and is building its first pilot unit. 

"It's a seven-step process that goes from raw brine, all the way to a high-purity, battery-grade end product," she said.

"So we could take that end product and ship it to a battery manufacturer and they could put it into a battery."

Hall says Alberta was the ideal place to develop the technology, which she co-invented with Dr. Kelly Krahulic, the VP of Technology and Innovation at Summit Nanotech.

"And we really focus on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) being an important part of the extraction process … these days, it's future proofing your company if you prioritize environmental processes when you're doing resource extraction."

Breaking glass ceiling

Hall has not just invented a new way to mine lithium, she's also breaking the glass ceiling with the company's all-female leadership team.

"When I show up at a mining site in South America, I'm the only woman in the world doing something like this with an all-female leadership team," she said.

Hall said her company is not just about science, it's also about the people she has chosen to work with in Calgary.

"You can't run a company without good people, and we have so many resource extraction experts in this province," she said. 

Hall plans to develop the methods here, and then take it further afield to target market in Chile, South America

"We do plan on extracting lithium from oil field brines in Alberta some day, but not right out of the gate. We need to establish a strong revenue stream internationally first."

Summit Nanotech is still in the development phase, but has already attracted the interest of billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk as well as investors, said Hall.

"We do see a lot of oil-and-gas investors wanting to diversify," she said.

"So investors are showing up at companies like mine saying, 'Can we invest in you?'"

At the end of the day, Hall is poised to develop a technology for a product that is only rising in demand.

"There's a paradigm shift happening globally with the energy industry, and it's starting with wondering where the source of that energy is coming from," she said.

"The energy industry, the oil patch, isn't going to close down because we run out of oil. It would be about demand. So the paradigm shift in energy is happening whether we like it or not."