When you’re testing a lot of water, you need a lot of tanks. The grey ones are from Captive Rentals while the black and green ones are from Latus Oilfield Solutions. The service rig is Independent Well Servicing. All are from Estevan. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

TORQUAY – Prairie Lithium’s president and CEO Zach Maurer first thought of producing lithium from the produced water that comes from oil wells. But that idea has since evolved into the pursuit of drilling directly for the highest concentrations of lithium. Still, extracting lithium from oil well brines is a possibility, too.

Here’s how Maurer explained it in late September, 2021, while in a shack during the drilling of the first lithium well in Saskatchewan.

Re-using old wells

Asked if they could use old wells that are watered out, Maurer said they could. The reason they drilled their own initial well was the desire for a good wellbore with good cement and good casing across the formation they’re interested in.

“I see a future in old wells that have good casing integrity. You can flow brine from them, you can re-use them, make them deeper, make them shallower. But in the beginning, we really need to prove economics to get more investment into the province before we start developing those Tier 2 assets,” he said.

“There’s a lot of oil wells in the province that produce a one to two per cent oil cut, that are just so marginal. I would like to see the efficiencies of our technology extend the life of those wells simply for job maintenance in the region. If you can, if you can keep those wells going, you know, five, 10, 15 years longer. You know, that’s, that’s half somebody’s career, right?”

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The key math

“Let’s do an example. This is all public information. So there’s areas in the Frobisher formation, that there’s 50 milligrams per litre, lithium, so 50 grams of lithium per cube. So one, to convert lithium to lithium carbonate, you times that by 5.32, to account for the carbonate. So there’s 266 grams of lithium carbonate in that one cube of brine. So 266 grams is 0.266 kilograms, times US$21. So let’s be conservative and say that’s $26 Canadian per kilogram of lithium, that cube of brine is worth $7. If you if that well is doing 100 cubes a day, or 50 cubes a day, that’s probably more realistic, times $7, it’s $350 worth of lithium. So $350 worth of lithium, and then that well’s doing 10 barrels of oil, so 10 times let’s use $65 barrel. That’s $650 for oil, $350 for lithium; well, shoot, now that well’s doing almost 1,000 bucks a day again.”

Concentrations of lithium in brine vary, he noted.

That example was a year ago, when oil was US$65 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate. Today it’s US$80 per barrel.

But more significantly, lithium prices have tripled since that time to over US $65,000 / tonne ($65/kg). So today, theoretically, that m3 of brine could be worth over CAD $20/m3.

In the company’s presentation to the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Regina on May 18, Prairie Lithium said its “Zone A” had a lithium concentration of 137 milligrams per litre (mg/L), while “Zone B” had 172 mg/L. That’s two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half times the concentration in the Frobisher example.

And those much higher concentrations, in turn, explain why Prairie Lithium, and indeed, pretty much everyone else, is focusing on going straight for the highest concentration.

By November, 2022, Maurer said, “We’re targeting roughly 70 per cent total process efficiency. And that’s our base. That’s the beautiful thing about chemistry. If you can close loop chemical reactions, you can increase the efficiency of a process. And so 70 per cent is our base case. We’re hoping to be up above that as we continue to increase process efficiencies.”

Lithium wells will involve moving a lot of water. Electric submersible pumps, or ESPs, as seen here, are typically used in that application. This pump came from Summit ESP out of Weyburn. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Who gets the money?

“Oil rights and mineral rights are separate. So if you’re producing from that formation, the oil rights holder has priority for their operations. You have to get consent in order to produce the lithium. So works out to a partnership,” he explained.

The oil companies have all the processing facilities, pipelines, and are dealing with that produced water every day. Asked how a lithium producer can make it work, he said, “It’s got to be collaborative, and both parties have to want it.

“I would see it as based on the brine volumes that they’re producing, and our process efficiency, they would potentially get a royalty on the lithium we produce.”

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Master plan

Fundamentally, Prairie Lithium is looking at extracting lithium from two brine sources. One is processing produced water already handled through regular oil production, partnering with willing oil companies. But over the last year, this has evolved into the secondary method.

The new primary is to drill their own wells, targeting the richest lithium-bearing formations, and basically drilling oil wells that don’t produce oil, but brine. From an oilman’s perspective, that would be called a “duster,” an unsuccessful well that would be promptly cemented and abandoned. In this case, they would likely be a lithium explorer’s highest producers.

Maurer explained, “When I started, immediately, I saw all this produced water that had low concentrations of lithium in it. It’s like a million cubes (cubic metres) a day at peak production across the province, tons of brine, which is tons of lithium. So I thought, ‘Okay, well, we could slap a lithium filter on all of that brine, that’s already in production, depending on the price of lithium, that’s like a $500 million to a billion dollar revenue stream that we’re just wasting right now annually.

A herd of antelope checked out the Prairie Lithium Torquay well on Oct. 27, 2021. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

“So that was the initial opportunity I saw. Going through the process of the lab, the mineral rights acquisition, developing the technology working with the stakeholders, it became clear that, if we were going to tack a lithium extractor on all the produced water in the province, that was going to be a substantial management challenge, again, just associated with mass deploying that much new technology so quickly.”

He continued, “We looked internally at what we were doing. And we decided that we’re likely better off to target the resource we like, drill our own wells for complete asset control, deploy our technology on to our own brine, refine the technology, and then scale down and mass deploy it on all these other applications. So, focus on us first, getting our first facility up, proving out scale, proving our profitability, and then mass deploying the tech.”

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It was no small coincidence the first well has a big lease, compared to a typical oil well. While it’s initially a test well, the hope is to have it become a production well. Pad drilling could be in the future, dependent on the hydrogeology learned from the initial well. “This is going to be a substantial test well, to figuring out well spacing feature, well design, and all of those things,” Maurer said. There’s likely no need, initially, for horizontal wells, meaning much cheaper drilling.

The arrangement with Deep Earth Energy Production also gave them access to one of DEEP’s wells drilled just a couple hundred metres from the Port of Torquay, a stone’s throw from the U.S. border. By late October, 2021. Prairie Lithium had a service rig swabbing that well, and a shack doing lab tests on site, just as they had on the first well site.

The testing has been done with a third-party qualified observer, ensuring the process and results are accurate.

 

 

“The way we differentiate from every other lithium mining company and mining company in the world is we embrace the oil and gas mentality of a handful of wells per production facility, cookie cutter replication across your property. Every other mining company in the world is one large monstrosity central processing facility, right? That’s how mining is,” Maurer said.

Prairie Lithium is essentially looking a battery model, just like oil and gas. “Ideally, the well spacing will be tight. And ideally, we could put a well in each corner of the pad to feed that battery or, in our case, it’s going to be an extraction facility,” he said.

Eagle Sky Ventures provided the service rig doing the swabbing on this well originally drilled by Deep Earth Energy Production. The U.S. border is about 200 metres south of the rig, to the right of the image. This well was the first of four picked up to delineate the resource in the Torquay area. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Delineation

By the fall of 2022, Prairie Lithium had embarked on further delineation of their resource.

On Sept. 21, Prairie Lithium announced it had acquired three oil wells that otherwise would have been abandoned due to limited oil production.

Although the wells no longer have use for oil production, they do provide Prairie Lithium with the opportunity to access the production and disposal formations required for its lithium operations.

Prairie Lithium was approached by a Saskatchewan-based oil and gas company in February 2022 with a list of wells they planned to abandon. The wells were sold to Prairie Lithium for $1 per well. This deal saved the oil and gas company the cost of abandoning the wells and saved Prairie Lithium the cost of drilling entirely new wells.

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Two of the wells are located in close proximity to each other, roughly three to four kilometres north of Oungre. The third well is northwest of Torquay, and approximately seven kilometres north of Prairie Lithium’s first well drilled, 14-33.

Prairie Lithium has brought in a drilling rig to makes these holes a little deeper, and then recompleted them with a service rig.

Maurer explained that the first well they are working on currently goes just a few metres into the Duperow. But the Duperow typically has an average thickness of 150 metres in this area. They want to drill through the entire formation to test it much more comprehensively. Based on the wells drilled and re-completed last year, the company knows which high-grade zones within the Duperow it wants to test in more detail for lithium concentration and brine productivity.

“This is a massive rock formation,” he noted.

Put into context, the much-ballyhooed Bakken formation is two to three metres thick around Stoughton.

 

Drilling the first well in September, 2021. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

The re-entry, recompletion and testing of this well is part of the company’s delineation strategy across their land base. The first well they drilled was close to the centre. The DEEP well was almost due south, and this next well is almost due north. The two wells near Oungre are almost due west, providing an east-west component to the delineation strategy.

Regarding the DEEP well, he said, “We did the re-entry into that geothermal well. The lithium results were really good, and consistently delineated with the well that we drilled at 14-33.

“Now the purpose of this re-entry program is to move north and confirm that north-south delineation. And then future plans would involve additional east-west delineation of the resource. And then that will start to give us a really good idea as to what the resource potential is in that area,” Maurer said.

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This well is being completed to measure lithium concentrations across Prairie Lithium’s main target intervals within the Duperow formation and to understand the productivity across these intervals to ensure a sufficient volume of lithium-rich brine can be produced for long term development. The workover and flow testing are expected to be completed by Dec. 1, 2022.

Re-entries

Re-entries are not common in southeast Saskatchewan. Most oil companies prefer to start fresh with a brand-new wellbore than take a risk on an old wellbore that could have problems, such as a poor cement job. And Maurer explained they’re taking a similar approach.

“That’s why we drilled our first well as a brand new vertical well. We drilled that first well, the vertical, to make sure that we understand the rock formation, and make sure that we knew what we were getting into. We were in control of everything associated with that well.

“These wells that we’re taking on, these last three, and the geothermal well we took on last year and re-entered, these aren’t intended to be production wells.

“They’re really just exploration test holes, so they’re just providing us an access point to the Duperow formation. And then when we drill our production wells, those will be new drills.”

This strategy means a savings of around a million dollars per test well, with that $1 purchase price getting them to the top of the formation.

The exploration program will have run the better part of a month, abandoning the original completion, bringing in the drilling rig to deepen the well, then doing new completions, installing an electric submersible pump and testing. It’s very similar to what took place on the company’s first well drilled last year.

The large size of this lease was no accident. It allows for future development on the site. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Lease conversion

On Oct. 19 of this year, Prairie Lithium announced that, to its knowledge, it had converted the first two lithium exploration permits to leases in this province.

The company said it had converted two crown mineral exploration permits with a combined area of 6,795 acres, into 21-year mineral leases. Those mineral leases, SML001 and 002, are the first crown mineral leases issued for lithium by the province, the company said.

It’s an important step, because leases are required before companies are allowed to produce a resource at commercial-scale production rates. The company said this achievement illustrates the progress Prairie Lithium has been making towards readying its resource for deployment of direct lithium extraction technology (DLE) on its lithium-rich brine resource in Saskatchewan.

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On Oct. 19, Maurer said, “We’ve converted the exploration permits that cover our minerals from the well that we drilled last year, and the exploration permit directly adjacent to the north of the well we drilled last year. Having a mineral lease in hand is a key step towards readying the resource for larger scale brine production testing. With exploration permits, you can explore but not produce sufficient volumes that are needed to support the next phase of DLE technology development.”

Conversion to a lease is only possible when a company has met the minimum work requirement expenditure associated with an exploration permit. Prairie Lithium’s conversion of mineral permits to 21-year mineral leases is a direct result of the exploration work undertaken in 2021 to better understand the distribution of lithium in the Duperow Aquifer in Southeast Saskatchewan. The exploration program included drilling a new well (14-33-002-12 W2M) and re-completing a well at (01-02-001-12 W2M).

Representative fluid samples were collected from eight separate zones in the well at 14-33 and three separate zones in the well at 01-02. In addition to collecting fluid samples, the 14-33 well was flow-tested for overall productivity because long-term sustainable production of brine will be necessary for project viability, the company said.

Getting the money

“We’re private right now,” he added.

Asked how hard it is to convince people to invest in lithium, Maurer responded, “Not as hard right now as it was, two or three years ago. It was like drawing blood from a stone, nobody knew what lithium was, how much of it was in Saskatchewan, how the DLE process worked, who do we sell it to, what the risks are, etc. It was a very tough sell. Now, with a good project, and a good plan, you’ll get a lot of attention from the investment community. However, a lot of groups, like everyone, are still new to lithium, so I spend nearly everyday educating interested investors all over the world. There’s a large global appetite to invest in lithium in Saskatchewan, and we just need to keep pushing the industry forward.”

 

Editor’s note: Prairie Lithium’s Dr. Ben Roston will be presenting at the 2022 Saskatchewan Geological Open House at the Saskatoon Delta Bessborough Hotel at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Registration is available at the door and there is no charge to attend. Click here for more information. And click here for the program in pdf form: SGOH2022-TechnicalProgram_Web (3)

 

 

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Lithium in SK, Part 6: Direct Lithium Extraction is the multi-billion dollar question

Lithium in SK, Part 5: Prairie Lithium – Old wells or new wells?

Lithium in SK, Part 4: Prairie Lithium pursuing the idea there could be lithium in those brines

Lithium in SK, Part 3: Crown land sale reveals sixth entrant in Saskatchewan lithium exploration race

Lithium in SK, Part 2: Saskatchewan government launches lithium incentives

Lithium in SK Part 1: As the race for lithium takes off, Saskatchewan is seeing the dawn of a new industry