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By Valerie Stewart, M.B.A, VP Strategy & Development, Scovan with Chris Doornbos, President & CEO, E3 Lithium

Valerie Stewart: It’s been a while since Scovan featured E3 Lithium in IGNITE V1 and we know much has happened in that time for the industry as well as our respective companies. At the time, your effort was focused on introducing the idea of lithium and educating on the potential. Where is your focus today? 

Chris Doornbos: Since we last spoke, E3 has made significant progress and the lithium and battery industry has matured globally. The potential for lithium to diversify the Alberta economy is significant and the need for battery minerals is much better understood – the conversation has evolved from ‘Why do we need lithium?’ to ‘How will we meet the clear demand for it?’ 

In the last year, E3 has added to its team, and we’re now at 28 highly talented people. This year we have spent substantial energy on the development of our resource. In the early part of the year, we received licenses to drill two wells, which are now complete. We also reached several major milestones in 2022, including announcing a strategic agreement with Imperial Oil and more than tripling our resource from 7.0 million tonnes (Mt) of inferred lithium to 24.3 Mt. The development of our technology is ongoing and this year saw us demonstrate the commercial scale production of our ion-exchange material.

VS: Can you describe the DLE ion-exchange technology, what is it and how does it work?

CD: While the term is used broadly for a variety of processes, DLE, or Direct Lithium Extraction, at E3 is simply a modified version of ion-exchange. Ion-exchange processes are designed to extract elements out of liquid, such as calcium or uranium. E3’s ion-exchange material is selective for lithium. 

Our lithium is located in brine, which is essentially salty water, deep underground in Alberta’s Leduc Reservoir. Our ion-exchange technology allows us to efficiently extract lithium ions from the brine, while simultaneously rejecting impurities, so that we are left with a high purity lithium sulfate at the end of our process for further refining into battery grade products. 

The processes around how our ion-exchange material interacts with the brine, generally called ‘solid-liquid separation’ is fairly standard in the water and mineral treatment industries. This is why our ability to produce our material at a commercial scale, which we demonstrated this year, is so important, as the other pieces of the process are already well understood and readily available. 

VS: Other producers typically rely on one of two methods, evaporative ponds or lithium mines. What advantages does DLE have to these methods? 

CD: Direct extraction using ion-exchange has several advantages, not just operationally, but from a land-use and environmental perspective as well. Evaporative ponds and open pit mines take up a lot of land – for our process, we anticipate using less than three per cent of the land required for traditional methods of extracting lithium. It’s also quick. Where an evaporative pond takes months or years for lithium to be extracted, direct extraction using ion-exchange works in minutes, and has the potential to unlock lithium in brine resources around the world. 

VS: Scovan was involved in your preliminary economic assessment. Can you give an update on your DLE technology development and provide timing for taking it out of lab and into a field tested pilot? 

CD: We are hard at work on our in-field pilot and plan to construct it in early 2023 and operate it for at least six months. We believe the pilot project to be the most critical part of our business at this point and we have the right team of people working on it to construct, commission and operate it as soon as possible. The proprietary part of our ion-exchange technology is the material that is highly selective for lithium, and this summer we announced the production of our first quantity of commercial-scale ion-exchange material. We will produce the material used in our pilot plant at our contractor’s facility. For our commercial operation, we plan to build this same equipment on site and produce the ion-exchange material for our own use. There is also the potential to license our technology to other lithium in brine resource holders. 

VS: When we look to the future of E3 and DLE’s commercial use, what does your commercialization plan look like? How large of an operation are we talking about and where would it be located?

CD: Our economics are detailed in our Preliminary Economic Assessment, which outlines initial production of 20,000 tonnes per year of lithium hydroxide monohydrate – a battery grade product – for 20 years. This is just the tip of what our resource can produce– the Clearwater Project Area, which is the focus of our PEA and is located north of Calgary, represents less than two per cent of our total resource. The first lithium production plant will set the stage for E3 as a company. From there, we can expand our production significantly.

VS: Can you explain the importance of partnerships for E3 and how they will play into your success?

CD: We have a substantial resource, a technology that could revolutionize the lithium industry and a team with deep expertise in developing Alberta’s natural resources: plainly, we have what we believe to be an incredibly valuable business on our hands with significant growth potential. While we could develop it on our own, partnerships accelerate our growth. For example, our strategic agreement with Imperial included an equity investment and provided an option to their freehold land; it also allows us access to their expertise operating in the Leduc Reservoir, which they have been doing for more than 50 years. That’s invaluable.

VS: Lithium is critical to the energy transition and Canada’s competitive ability to provide renewable energy to the world. Can you describe the market potential for Lithium in Canada? How does the Alberta Advantage play into this?

CD: The market potential for lithium is huge. Any chart you see that plots lithium demand from now until 2030 sees demand increase and the supply gap widen. Benchmark Mineral Intelligence estimates that by 2030, 3.4 terawatts of demand for lithium is going to be created globally. In that lies great potential for a jurisdiction like Alberta which has a globally significant resource, a highly skilled workforce and a well understood regulatory framework that sets up lithium companies like E3 to efficiently develop its resource. Globally, the factors that position jurisdictions as desirable partners include domestic security and stability and focuses on ethical conduct and environmental stewardship – all factors in which Alberta shines brightly.

VS: How has the Canada and US joint action plan on critical minerals collaboration helped spur investment and development of your technology?

CD: Since the Canada-U.S. joint action plan was announced early in 2020, we’ve seen both countries prioritize and support the development of critical minerals in various acts and grant funding opportunities. In Canada, Budget 2021 included $47.7M for federal research and development to advance critical battery mineral processing and refining; in Budget 2022, up to $3.8B was proposed to support Canada’s Critical Mineral strategy over the next eight years. The U.S.’s Inflation Reduction Act and Defence Production Act see additional incentives and funding opportunities, with Canadian supply considered domestic in many instances. This funding and incentive-based support is critical to advancing North American value chains all the way from raw material production to EV battery manufacturing.

VS: Thanks for your time and insight into E3 and the critical minerals opportunity at large. Scovan is proud to have been part of your story so far and look forward to the future.

Originally published in Scovan’s IGNITE Vol. 5