Combining an interest in mineral exploration with an understanding of what resources will be required in the future led Zach Maurer down a different type of test hole. He discovered that the saltwater brines that surround Saskatchewan’s oil fields have the potential to contain lithium – a chemical element that is a key ingredient in emerging battery technology. These results led him to create Prairie Lithium, which just drilled the province’s first dedicated lithium brine well.
“Lithium kept topping the list as having a large potential demand in the future because of its association with batteries and electric vehicles. I realized that a lot of lithium came out of saltwater brine in South America, and I knew from my time in the oil and gas industry that we have a ton of saltwater brine in Saskatchewan,” said Maurer.
“I wondered if anyone had ever sampled this brine for lithium before, and while there had been some high-level research done, no one had ever tried to quantify the commercial potential of the resource in the province.”
He descended into these unchartered waters in 2017 while working full-time as an environmental consultant. He worked evenings and weekends trying to understand the origin and evolution of lithium in brine in Saskatchewan. After two years of research, he was convinced that Saskatchewan had tremendous potential as a more sustainable lithium producer.
In February 2019, he incorporated Prairie Lithium in Regina, and two months later, he brought in Dr. Ian Ireland, Prairie Lithium’s current Chief Technology Officer. He then established a partnership with Isobrine Solutions in Edmonton, and began to raise capital for the project in late 2019. The initial capital enabled them to acquire exploration properties and start developing the chemical processes that would be required to mine lithium in Saskatchewan.
“There’s currently two methods to commercially mine lithium in the world. One is evaporation pond processing that is used in South America and the other is hardrock strip mining, which occurs mainly in Western Australia. Evaporation pond processing won’t work in Saskatchewan because we have too much precipitation. We had to look at a number of lithium extraction technologies from around the world and since the space was so new, we had to invent our own direct lithium extraction technology,” explained Maurer.
The fledging company spent much of 2020 developing its own propriety technology. The next step in 2021 was to increase its land base and start drilling wells to determine the commercial potential of their new technology.
Part of the company’s research efforts focussed on understanding the subsurface where lithium is concentrated. Based upon that information, the company started mapping out the best locations to start drilling. This led to a unique partnership with DEEP Earth Energy Production Corporation, which was test drilling for geothermal energy.
Both companies were drilling water wells and Maurer said that it made sense to combine efforts on subsurface mineral permits. DEEP was seeking geothermal energy in deeper rock formations, while Prairie Lithium was targeting shallower brines for lithium. Rather than competing with one another for mineral permits, they reached an agreement to exchange subsurface mineral permits and to establish an area of mutual interest in the Williston Sedimentary Basin in southeast Saskatchewan.
This area covers 40 townships along the American border near Torquay. This fall Prairie Lithium drilled its first dedicated lithium brine well and is currently assessing the results to determine the projects preliminary economics.
The company’s technology extracts the lithium by pumping the salty underground water to the surface, where it is mixed with an ion exchange material in a tank and converted into lithium chloride. This new proprietary technology is faster and more sustainable than traditional lithium mining methods. Although it’s still early in the process, Maurer said that the company has “discovered some of the highest lithium concentrations I’ve ever seen in Canada.”
When lithium is finished being processed it looks like white salt, and while there is considerable demand for batteries, it has other uses including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, grease lubricants, and an additive for iron, steel and aluminum production. If the deposit turns out to be commercially viable, Maurer said Prairie Lithium could ramp up production very quickly with the proper investment.
“We’ll be emulating the oil and gas model of a couple of wells feeding a central facility. It’s not a typical mining operation that requires a one-time massive investment for a single facility. Every well you drill – whether it’s for oil, gas, helium, lithium, or geothermal – typically employs just over 100 people per well. Then it would require a couple of hundred jobs directly and indirectly involved with building the facility. So, when you couple all of that together with multiple wells per facility and you can replicate that model many times, you could be looking at thousands of direct and indirect jobs in a region,” said Maurer.
Given the model Prairie Lithium has developed, and the small surface footprint, the process for scaling up a lithium mining operation in Saskatchewan could be considerably less expensive and more environmentally friendly than other lithium mining projects.
It has taken significant financial resources to get to this stage and Maurer said he is thankful for the support the company has received through the Saskatchewan Advantage Innovation Fund (SAIF) and the Saskatchewan Petroleum Innovation Incentive (SPII). SAIF is a research and development funding program designed to accelerate commercialization of game-changing technological innovations in the province’s core sectors including mining. SPII offers transferable oil and gas royalty/freehold production credits for qualified innovation commercialization projects at a rate of 25 per cent of eligible project costs. Prairie Lithium also raised $7.5 million through a private placement of shares and debentures led by PFM Capital Inc.
Maurer is confident that there is a solid future for lithium production in Saskatchewan. Only one per cent of the world’s current lithium production originates in North America and with a strong focus on electric car development over the next decade, both the United States and Canada will be looking for lithium sources closer to home to ensure supply. He predicts that most of the lithium produced in Saskatchewan would be used in the North American market.
“Lithium was a very small industry and still is a very small global industry as we enter this electric evolution. It had very limited applications in the past and it’s not like copper or nickel that have had hundreds of years of exploration behind them. Lithium to date has been a relatively small industry, but it is growing at a very, very fast rate.”
By Pat Rediger