There’s a lot riding on the production of lithium, a soft, silver-white metal. For one thing, almost the entire future of the electric-vehicle movement depends on the production of lithium-ion (LI) batteries as their energy source. Billions of cellphones and laptops also use LI batteries. Tesla alone already has three LI battery factories and is constructing two more.
The most widely used lithium production process is time-consuming, requiring many months for lithium to settle out of saltwater brine pumped from underground into huge evaporation ponds. But Calgary-based Summit Nanotech has developed a patent-pending process that uses nanomaterials to speed up lithium production.
Kelly Krahulic, Summit Nanotech’s vice president of technology and innovation, says the company’s “denaLi” process uses a proprietary combination of sorbents along with nanoporous membranes to separate lithium from the brine much faster.
“In the adsorpsion process, the lithium adheres to the adsorbent, which rejects other substances contained within the brine,” says Krahulic. “Then we use another solution to desorb, or release the lithium from the adsorbent, which is much like adding water to a sponge and wringing out the lithium. Basically, you’re sucking all of the lithium out of the adsorbent, after which, it is filtered through a nanoporous membrane. Instead of using acid in the desorption stage, we use recycled water.
Bypassing the pond or pool component dramatically decreases the processing time and it minimizes environmental issues with the desert ecosystem, where most of the lithium processing plants are located.” To limit its carbon footprint further, the company is able to draw power from geothermal, solar, wind and hydroelectric sources generated close to the processing sites.
Summit Nanotech’s technologies have gained the interest of several lithium development companies, including 3PL Operating Inc., which is exploring assets in Nevada, and Calgary-based Lithium Chile, which has lithium-producing properties in Chile. Summit Nanotech is just at the point of completing the primary technology development and is testing modules to build a pilot project to be installed at one of Lithium Chile’s properties.
Eventually they hope to commercialize the denaLi technology.
While South America is the major global source of lithium reserves, there are substantial reserves in Canada, including in the brine produced in existing Alberta oil and gas wells. Amanda Hall, Summit Nanotech’s founder and CEO, is a geophysicist who spent years in the oil and gas and mining sectors, as well as in research, so it should come as no surprise that she has already tagged those sites as potential future lithium supply. Long term, Summit hopes to develop a lithium recycling process, reducing even further the energy and resources required to produce this valuable element.
Both Hall and Krahulic believe the environment created by the federal and provincial levels of government to promote economic diversity has been instrumental in Summit Nanotech’s growth. At various stages the company has received funding support from government agencies, including Alberta Innovates, Sustainable Development Technology Canada and the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program. The MaRS urban innovation hub in Toronto has also provided important guidance, and Hall was named a finalist in the Women in Cleantech Challenge established by MaRS in collaboration with Natural Resources Canada.
That range of federal and provincial support has been extremely encouraging, says Krahulic. “I’m incredibly hopeful about the diversification that has been so strongly supported both with funding and connection with the resources we need,” she says. “Alberta is entering a time of transition that will eventually diversify its economy and we felt we needed to be part of that diversification. It can be scary to step into diversification just as it is for anyone to jump into entrepreneurship. But I believe Alberta has what it takes.”