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Water Today Title November 30, 2021

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Update 2021/11/12
Summit Nanotech


Calgary start-up Summit Nanotech lithium mining process
reduces freshwater use to zero while decreasing chemical waste by 90%


Suzanne Forcese

Going electric has its benefits but is there enough lithium on the planet to satiate our need for electric vehicles and all the other gadgets modern living is demanding?

Amanda Hall, Founder and CEO of Calgary-based Summit Nanotech contends there is more than enough lithium on the planet. It just needs to be extracted sustainably, efficiently, and effectively.

Called a “Compelling Calgarian” and identified as a “Top Female Innovator in Canada”, geophysicist Amanda Hall has developed the only female-led lithium mining company in the world having pioneered a more elegant approach to bringing resources out of the ground.

WATERTODAY reached out to Amanda Hall to learn more about why and how she is revolutionizing the mining industry.

The mountain top experience that led to forming a company

“In Tibet, I saw a monk pull a cell phone out of his robe at the top of a mountain in a monastery and I knew that lithium-ion batteries existed in every corner of the world. I started to think about how much more lithium would be needed in the future.”

Demand for lithium technology is expected to increase 500% in the next 5 years. The environmental impact from the process currently in use to extract and refine lithium will also increase 500%.

Current processes – mining through hard rock or brine mining which is similar to drilling a well – are not sustainable.

The brine mining method supplies 70% of the current demand and can take 6-24 months for the final product. However, 20,000 to 50,000 litres of freshwater per tonne are used; chemical waste is produced; high levels of greenhouse gases are emitted.

“I studied geophysics in university and learned how wonderful and fragile our planet is. When school ended and I entered the real world, I worked in the mining and oil & gas industries. There I learned from mentors about the fundamental science of extraction. When I started my own company to improve extraction technology, I knew that I was standing on the shoulders of giants.

“I started my own company in May 2018 because I felt an immense sense of responsibility as a scientist to impact change in the lithium space. I knew that the demand for battery metals would explode in the future, and I wanted to make sure that extraction was done responsibly to support the EV sector.

“I invented a unique process for a more sustainable method of extraction and then hired an A-Team of engineers, chemists, and geoscientists to continue to innovate and bring the technology to life.

“When I was involved in the oil and gas sector, there were times when I was frustrated by the industrial mentality that in order to increase production, we just had to hit the reservoirs harder with greater force.

“My philosophy was to use science to understand the physics of the rocks we were extracting from and more gently enhance production. To me, this was a more feminine approach. I carried this methodology with me when I started working in the lithium sector. A holistic and sustainable approach to extraction is important when thinking about the mine of the future.”

Nanotechnology

“Nanotechnology is related to the science of manipulating molecules to create materials that are intelligently arranged to perform specific functions. Summit’s technology is based on materials we created that will recognize and isolate lithium ions in solution.

“Nanotechnology will help to unlock unconventional reservoirs and allow for a more sustainable method of extraction.”

Of the global supply of lithium, 60% comes from brine in South America. The challenge is that in the processing, only 40% of lithium makes it to the surface, that is, 60% is lost. In addition, freshwater resources are depleted; and chemicals (which can make their way into groundwater) are also part of the process.

“Our technology is different because we set standards of extraction that align with sustainable solutions – no freshwater use, 90% less waste, no acid, and reduced energy. At the same time, we double yield and decrease costs so that miners want to use it.”

Biomimicry

Hall’s biggest concern was the use of freshwater (20,000-50,000 litres per tonne) and the disruption of pulling brine out of the ground which leaves void pore space that impacts water tables.

“The first iteration of our technology was modeled after the human kidney. The kidney can isolate ions using low pressure and low temperature and by using osmotic pressure to move water around between compartments. It’s a phenomenal concentration and purification organ.”

The Summit proprietary technology uses lithium selective membranes. Lithium ions are identified and pulled out of the solution. Anything that is not lithium goes past the nanotech materials and is then disposed of responsibly.

The innovative method to generate battery grade lithium compounds from brine fluids is named denaLi (Direct Lithium Extraction Process).

Interconnected modules using nano porous membranes in a unique arrangement are synthesized with specific filtration functions. Carbon dioxide is used to initiate end product precipitation. Discrete power generation modules are selected to work together to harvest and store available geothermal, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power from the system’s environment.

“It’s taking the incumbent process – the evaporation process-- and turning it on its head because that old process leaves lithium until the very end until after it has precipitated all the impurities. Then they take lithium out last. We’re doing it the other way around.”

Using sponges developed through nanoscience, lithium can be extracted directly from the wellhead without the need for expansive ponds and toxic chemicals.

“The sponge has lithium selective cavities in it just the exact size of a lithium ion. So, if you put a fluid against the sponge it will suck up lithium – nothing else. Then when you wash it, you wash the lithium off the sponge just by changing the environment the sponge is in. So, we don’t have to use any acids.” No water, no chemicals, higher yield at reduced cost.

Up Next -- "We are going to Chile in January 2022 to pilot our denaLi C process in a multi-client pilot program. Here’s our baby!”



suzanne.f@watertoday.ca







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