Home » Technology » Alberta’s Future is Lithium: From Oil Powerhouse to Battery Powerhouse
Chris Doornbos

Chris Doornbos

President, CEO & Director, E3Metals Corp.

As we transition into a green energy era, it’s time for Canada to redefine its role as a global energy leader. Abundant lithium resources position the country to be as ascendant in battery technology as we have historically been in fossil fuels.

More and more, the world is running on batteries. As technology continues to advance, as innovations like electric vehicles become more mainstream, and as electricity generation increasingly transitions to renewable energy, our dependence on batteries to power modern life is going to grow considerably.

Canada has built a place for itself in the world as an energy superpower, rich in both resources and expertise. In the years and decades to come, maintaining that position on the global stage is going to depend on our ability to be as groundbreaking in battery technology as we have been in oil, gas, and nuclear energy. Fortunately, Alberta’s natural wealth and enterprising spirit has us positioned to do just that.

Every roadmap to a cleaner and more electric future relies on our ability to store green energy for future use elsewhere. “Without an efficient way to make electricity mobile, a battery, it’s impossible to run society off electricity,” says Chris Doornbos, CEO of E3 Metals. “We have seen the world begin to shift to an electric future. Whatever the future source of energy is, you can’t get to an electrical society without a battery.”

These batteries won’t make themselves

Batteries, of course, are made from raw materials. And although there are many great battery designs out there, it’s the lithium battery market that drives the most ubiquitous and portable technologies from cell phones to electric vehicles and implanted medical devices. “Because of the energy density of the element lithium, it’s the most efficient metal on the periodic table for enabling the movement of electrons,” says Doornbos. “If you ask any chemist what would be the theoretical best tool to do the job of a battery, they would point to lithium.”

So where do we get our lithium from? Well, the good news is that it’s everywhere. The hard part is finding large enough sources where it can be extracted in an economically viable way. This is where Alberta’s Leduc Aquifer, the same place where the province’s oil legacy began in 1947, comes in. “Lithium is everywhere,” says Doornbos. “There is even lithium in seawater. But, then, there’s also gold in seawater. You have to be able to make an economic project work, and that requires a concentrated source of lithium and the ability to extract it. What we know about this aquifer in Alberta is that it can deliver large volumes of lithium-rich brine, which means we can make it happen.”

An entirely new industry

Lithium has not historically been produced in Alberta. In fact, E3 Metals had to advocate for regulations to be put in place, because the industry was non-existent and no regulatory body was empowered to oversee it. But now that the potential magnitude of this industry is becoming clear, people are beginning to pay attention.

“The total amount of lithium in Western Canada is truly remarkable,” says Doornbos. “Alberta as a whole is probably one of the largest sources of lithium globally. In the future, E3 Metals alone could produce over 150,000 tons of lithium a year. To give you an idea of where that fits in the global scheme, the biggest lithium producers today make about 80,000 tons. When this gets going, we could see lithium become a major contributor to Alberta’s GDP.”

Requiring a very familiar skillset

It’s a perfect storm of resource density and expertise positioned at just the right moment in history. At a time when the shift away from oil and gas makes Alberta’s future look uncertain, this is an opportunity to reinvent and reinvigorate the province with a clean energy technology that requires all the same workforce skills. As E3 Metals ramps up the development of their lithium extraction operation at the Leduc Aquifer, they are creating a lot of jobs for exactly the kind of workers Alberta already has.

“Most of the staff that we have on hand have worked in the oil industry,” says Doornbos. “Because we produce lithium from an aquifer, we produce it like oil. We drill a well and put in a pump, just like the oil and gas industry. Everything we do to operate and build this has been done in Alberta before.”

Low environmental impact

Of course, there’s one big question facing an industry that aims to be instrumental in building a sustainable future, especially one that is directly positioning itself as part of the transition from fossil fuels, “How clean is it?” Thanks to E3’s Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) ion exchange process, developed in partnership with the University of Alberta, the answer is, “Very.”

“We have a very small footprint,” says Doornbos. “Basically, there are columns of beads that the lithium in the brine sticks to as it flows through. So the brine comes out of the ground and into our facility, we extract the lithium, and we put the brine right back into the aquifer in a closed-loop system, otherwise unchanged. That’s our impact.”

It’s a straightforward process with a lot of upside, and the social license is already in place. Now that the regulatory framework has also been established, the first lithium extraction enterprises in Alberta will soon be going from proof-of-concept to full operation. E3 Metals expects to be producing battery-ready lithium products in Alberta by 2025-2026.

“There will be other lithium producers in Alberta soon too,” says Doornbos. “I’m convinced of it. This is going to be a very big deal for the province.”

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