A lithium brine before (right) and after (left) one of the initial processes. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

EMERALD PARK – Back in 1903, someone was going to invent the airplane.

People were working on it in New Zealand, Brazil, France, Germany and America. It just happened to be that two brothers who had a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, travelled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and took off with the first airplane, the Wright Flyer.

But if they had not succeeded, one of the others almost certainly would have. It might have been 1904, or 1905, but powered flight was inevitable.

And that’s currently what’s happening in the world of lithium development from sedimentary brines.

It’s called direct lithium extraction, or DLE, and figuring out how to make it happen commercially is the multi-billion dollar question that could, in a manner, change the world.

When talking to lithium explorers working in Saskatchewan, nearly all of them say that there’s dozens of companies working on developing a commercial DLE process, so they’ll just buy the best one available.

The problem is, to this point there is none currently available, although plenty of companies are talking about it.

If you want to produce oil, you can go to any number of companies and buy off-the-shelf free water knockouts, treaters and separators, set up your battery and start making sales-grade oil. But that doesn’t exist for lithium that is found in the deep sedimentary brines of Western Canada.

Just one of the six companies actively exploring for lithium in Saskatchewan is working on developing its own DLE process – Prairie Lithium of Emerald Park. (Alberta’s E3 Lithium is also working on their own DLE.)

Tyler Mills, left, Rylan Mclean, and Valan Namq , and  in front of the pilot plant for direct lithium extraction. The brine starts in the tanks on the right, goes through a centrifuge (behind the chrom box on the right, then a second centrifuge behind the grey box on the left, before continuing onto final processing. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Scaling up

On Dec. 6, Pipeline Online spoke to Don Bender, P.Eng., Research, Development and Engineering Manager with Prairie Lithium. The chemical engineer joined the company a little over a year ago.

He talked at length about the learning process, the trial and error, of commercializing this new technology.

“There are many companies out there right now working to develop DLE technology that has the capabilities to scale up to a commercial level. Our team evaluates the technology of other companies on our own resource to find the best possible option. We have not yet found a DLE technology that is ready to be deployed at a commercial scale on our resource, but we are continuously researching and testing.

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“We do this research as well as developing our own technology because we want to ensure we are using the best technology for our lithium resource. If we find a technology that is ready to go before we finish developing our own, we will use it.”

“The difficulties with scaling up from pilot to commercial is extracting it at a meaningful cost, and repeatedly. At this point, no one is producing lithium using DLE commercially, but as each month passes it is exciting to see the technologies close in on commercial deployment.”

He continued, “It’s very easy to extract a few grams of lithium here and there. You spend all day prepping for it, and you get out two grams. It’s very hard to get to the point where our extraction pilot plant is. It’s designed to extract 10 kilograms of lithium a day. And so that’s a meaningful amount of lithium, where, if you could do that, day-in, day-out, for repeatable cost, then that could be a technology that’s actually viable.

“Where the industry is right now and people talk about being able to extract lithium, but no one’s actually doing it. No one’s producing lithium right now. So right there, you have to kind of give yourself a pause and go, ‘There’s so many people can say they can extract lithium. Why is no one making lithium?’”

The industry he is referring to is the one seeking to produce lithium from sedimentary brines. Hard rock lithium and lithium production from evaporation ponds in South America are known and established processes.

Bender added, “That’s not to say that there’s not someone out there that’s figured it out yet, and they’re just trying to build it out.

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“I think that’s probably where we’re at right now. There’s five or six companies right now that are close to it and they have a lot of learning left to do, because they need to scale out the facility size, so they go from milligrams to kilograms to tonnes. In this process, you encounter whole new problems that are incredibly difficult.”

Tyler Mills , left, watches Valan Namq as he checks out a sample. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

New frontier

It’s not every day you get to invent a new industry. But that’s what it feels like to Bender. He said, “I think one of the coolest things about lithium, in this space, it’s kind of like the first really modern-day frontiers for developing something new.

“I used to work in oil sands, and oil sands started in the 1970s. And probably by the 2000s it kind of got optimized and started taking a foothold in Alberta. We kept getting better and better incrementally. But we were taking proven technologies and making it a little bit better here, a little bit better there.

“Lithium is brand new. We can’t cut and paste some other facility. You can’t fall back on existing technology. It’s all new.

“Going back to your Kitty Hawk analogy, it’s like we’re trying to fly the airplane while we’re building the airplane and we’re not even exactly sure what an airplane looks like.”

He said they talk about invention of the airplane a lot. “The other expression is we often find ourselves doing new things with new things to do new things. And we try to cut down on the number of new we’re doing at any given time.

“It’s overwhelming, when you’re trying to do two things you’ve never done before. You’re not sure if you’re driving the car right, or if you didn’t fill it up with the right gas,” Bender said.

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The chemistry

First off, what’s coming out of the ground is hot, salty water – a saturated brine. Only a few kilometres to the southeast of Prairie Lithium’s first well, Deep Earth Energy Production has drilled several exploratory geothermal wells. Indeed, they even sold one to Prairie Lithium for testing purposes.

The Duperow formation that Prairie is seeking is around 2,200 metres deep, so it’s not nearly as deep as the geothermal project’s 3,400 metre-deep wells. But this is still the hottest part of the Williston Basin.

Bender explained that the brine is around three times saltier than the ocean. Bender likened it to a “subsurface ocean.” As such, they want to absolutely minimize the amount of time that fluid is above ground to minimize salt precipitating out.

That black powder is what Prairie Lithium calls “Plix.” It’s a sorbent, and it’s absolutely critical to how they intend on pulling lithium out of salt water brines. Photo by Brian Zinchuk.

Ion exchange

The method of direct lithium extraction Prairie Lithium is working on is called an “ion exchange.” And they do it with a substance they’re calling “Plix,” or Prairie Lithium ion exchange.

It’s a black, extremely fine metal powder, but that’s about as descriptive as he can get without giving away proprietary information.

“This is a crystalline structure that exchanges hydrogen ions with lithium ions,” he said. “Think about it as a ball that has a whole bunch of hydrogen sticking to the outside of the ball. And when it comes in contact with a higher concentration of lithium like our brine, for example, the hydrogen ions exchange places with the lithium ions.

“Now there’s hydrogen ions in the brine, and lithium ions in our Plix. And then the next step is we filter the Plix out of the brine. Then the brine goes to disposal and goes back down into a formation that’s suitable for disposing of it without, ideally, leaving any salts or trace of it behind.

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“Now we have a lithium-rich Plix. We take that Plix and we then wash it with water. That’s to get any of the carryover contaminants out, things like calcium and magnesium, stuff from the brine we don’t want.”

He continued, “And then we take it and we introduce it to a hydrochloric acid. It’s pretty weak. Actually, we’re finding the weaker we go, the better things work out. What happens then is the hydrogen ions in the hydrochloric acid swap places with the lithium ions in the Plix. Then you have hydrogen-rich Plix that’s ready to go back to the brine and do the whole show again. And you end up with a lithium chloride solution.”

That crude lithium chloride solution can then be refined and upgraded to battery-grade lithium products. Some products require a purity of 99.99 per cent.

There’s actually two possible final products – white powders, either a lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide. Generally speaking, they’re planning for lithium carbonate, but that’s yet to be decided, depending on what the market calls for.

Note that on Nov. 9, 2021, lithium spot prices were going for US$29,000 a tonne. By this past May, it had risen to US$65,000 a tonne. While the market may come down from its lofty heights, Bender talks about facilities producing 12 tonnes per day. At the US$29,000 price, that’s a value of US$348,000 per day. At US$65,000 per tonne, that would be US$780,000 per day.

Plix is something Prairie Lithium produces from scratch. “We buy the raw ingredients for it. We mix it into the right proportions. We have a couple of different recipes that we’re trying to optimize right now.” he said.

“One of the things with Plix is trying to get the optimal formulation that yields most reliable results for the most amount of time with the least amount of contamination carryover.”

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This is where that high purity comes into play. Bender said, “One of the things that Plix does really well is it’s very selective. It doesn’t like exchanging with anything other than lithium.”

A key part of commercializing such processes is minimizing the usage of any consumables, of which, ultimately, Plix is such a consumable. The company is trying to determine the least among of Plix necessary for the most amount of lithium produced.

The new pilot plant looks a lot different than the old one. Here you see the primary centrifuge (grey cone, in centre) with the secondary centrifuge behind it. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Learning curve

A year ago, Prairie Lithium thought they had much of their DLE process sorted out for the pilot stage. But as with any scaling up of a process to commercial scale, there are hiccups. And they found them.

The original idea was to use filter presses, basically a batch process. But Bender said they found that after a certain number of cycles, the process started taking more time. At a certain level, that time factor increased greatly. Remember – every minute that brine is cooling, troublesome salt is likely precipitating out, causing more headaches.

“We’ve learned some of our lessons,” he said, noting they switched the equipment used to get Plix out of the brine.

So they built a new pilot plant at their facility in Emerald Park.

“We started running our new extraction facility earlier in November, and it’s actually cool you’re calling me today, since today’s the day where we got past our last best run that we’ve ever had before.”

The key point is the switch from filter presses to centrifuges. And from there, other improvements came.

“One of our junior engineers, our youngest employee, he figured out we could do it in about 20 seconds of residence time, what we were spending an hour to do,” Bender said.

It also led to an appreciable improvement in recovery factor, too. And that’s a big deal, given the value of lithium. You don’t want to leave any behind if you can avoid it.

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Resource company first

Bender said that Prairie Lithium is a resources company first. There are other companies focused specifically on DLE.

“The only reason we’re doing DLE is because no one else did it. And we want to get our lithium out of the ground,” he said.

What’s more crucial is getting that lithium. And so, if another company comes up with a DLE that will work for Prairie Lithium, they’re open to using that instead of their own. The company has noted in its press releases it is evaluating other DLE technologies. And maybe, some day, Prairie Lithium might license out its DLE technology. The demand-supply crunch is going to be huge for lithium, he noted. “I don’t think we’d hesitate for a second to license our technology,” he said.

An added benefit of working on their own DLE technology is that Prairie Lithium can speak with some well-earned background knowledge in talking with other DLE developers. It helps filter who actually knows what they’re talking about, and who doesn’t.

The brine enters the pilot plant from the left, goes through two centrifuges in the middle, and comes out on the right. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Bench, pilot, commercialization

There’s generally four stages in bringing something like this to market – bench stage, where it works in a lab; pilot stage, where it’s being testing in more realistic scenarios, proof-of-concept and commercialization – where the process has been refined enough to produce a final product for market.

The last year basically meant a reset to the pilot stage. They’re looking to produce lithium carbonate equivalent at about 10 kilograms per day. They’re not at battery-grade purity yet, but they’re working on dialing that in.

“The plant we will do next, which will be a plant that’s on our wellsite, using our brine – that will be sized to do 500 kilograms LCE per day. So that’ll be the total proof of concept, using our brine, disposing of it, completely understanding OPEX and CAPEX (operational expenditure and capital expenditure), where things are going, where things need to work, what our limitations are.

“Then once that’s proven successful, we’ll build the commercial facility.”

“But one of the things that we’re doing now, and no one else that I know of is doing this is we’re using at-scale equipment,” he said of their centrifuges. As centrifuges are a very well-known technology, they’re not expecting surprises in scaling those up.

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Timelines

After basically a one-year reset, Bender said, “We’ve commissioned our extraction plant. It’s running right now.”

“Our timeline is to start doing some front-end engineering design (FEED) on our commercial pilot, our 500 kilograms LCE per day pilot,” he said.

That includes figuring out size, site layout, earthworks, getting power to the site. “If all goes well, we hope to finish that up in 2023. And we’d be ready for construction in 2024.”

So far, it’s looking like it wouldn’t be too far from the 14-33 well, northwest of Torquay. And indeed, that particular lease was substantially larger than a typical oil well lease, with a possible facility in mind.

The company is currently in the process of testing several wells in the area to delineate the resources. Three have been done so far.

The facility piping and tankage will likely be stainless steel or non-metallic. Bender noted they don’t have any high-pressure equipment so non-metallics are very much on the table.

This process is entirely different from what is seen in South America, where massive evaporation ponds covering many hectares hold lithium brines for up to 18 months.

“There’s no evaporation ponds, no storage ponds of any sort. If you were to drive by one of our facilities producing, say 12 tonnes of lithium a day, you really wouldn’t know you if you were driving by a big farm shop or a facility.”

 

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Lithium in SK, Part 8: Ministry of Energy and Resources response to primacy of rights issues

Lithium in SK: Part 7b: The rent’s due, and so is the LLR

Lithium in SK, Part 7: Dealing with an embarrassment of riches – sorting out the primacy of rights

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