The team of oil and gas industry experts at Volt Lithium (TSXV: VLT) has introduced a new lithium extraction technology that it says achieves 90% recovery rates from its Rainbow Lake brine project in northwestern Alberta. The Volt team, led by CEO Alex Wylie, has successfully harnessed its expertise in fluid movement to tackle lithium extraction from brine reservoirs, he told The Northern Miner in an interview.
“Our pilot plant has given us the data required to prove we can produce lithium consistently from low-grade brines. It potentially opens significant commercial potential with existing oil and gas majors, particularly in North America’s Permian and Montney basins,” Wylie said.
The innovative extraction idea developed from a partnership between Wylie and another industry expert who had previously worked together for over 15 years. Wylie has a background in the oil and gas sector, while his partner comes from a family-owned chemicals business in Calgary. Intrigued by the potential of lithium, they embarked on a quest to determine its extractability.
While conventional wisdom dictated that lithium extraction was only feasible from high-concentration brines, the team founded a company called Standard that achieved successful extraction from concentrations as low as 300 mg per litre. This revelation led them to explore the possibilities, particularly in regions like Chile and Argentina, where brines boast exceptionally high lithium concentrations.
The team’s primary objective was to be able to extract lithium from brines across the concentration spectrum. Leveraging their fluid movement expertise gained from the oil and gas industry, they developed a technology that demonstrated high extraction rates during testing at Rainbow Lake.
Using Volt’s proprietary direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology, the company reported in late May that the pilot project achieved 90% lithium recoveries at concentrations as low as 34 mg per litre. Wylie also says Volt has simulated operating conditions at concentrations of 120 mg per litre and recovered up to 97% lithium. Assuming average annual production of 20,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide monohydrate, those simulations suggest operating costs would be under $4,000 per tonne.
Volt’s DLE approach involves a two-stage process. The first focuses on removing contaminants from the brine before extraction. By partnering with a water treatment and filtration systems sub-contractor, the team ensured efficient brine treatment, facilitating the subsequent extraction process.
The breakthrough in the company’s technology comes in the second stage, with the development of specialized ion-exchange beads.
Wylie says that unlike traditional beads, the larger, 5-micron specialized beads have 800 times the surface area, enhancing their extraction efficiency.
This advancement allowed the team to consistently extract lithium from brines during various testing stages, including successful pilot projects.
Notably, the team scaled up their process from a modest 5 litres at a time in the laboratory to an astounding 2,000 litres during the bench testing phase. Encouraged by these results, they transitioned to pilot production, processing 18,000 barrels of fluid daily. According to Wylie, their system returned consistent extraction results, which bodes well for its scalability.
Looking ahead, the team has set their sights on commercial production, with a first-stage goal of processing 60,000 barrels of fluid per day. This milestone would enable the production of 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes per year of lithium hydroxide, translating into substantial revenue potential.
The team’s success to date validates its extraction capabilities and opens new possibilities for lithium extraction from brines with lower concentrations. Volt aims to demonstrate the commercial viability of its system, paving the way for collaborations with oil companies operating in lithium-rich regions like the Permian Basin and Montney.
The team has opted to focus on pilot projects before traditional mining assessments. Wylie says this unconventional approach allows them to leverage actual pilot results to design and optimize future operations. Down the line towards commercialization, Wylie envisions expanding Volt’s operations and unlocking the vast potential of lithium extraction in North America and beyond.
With its potentially game-changing technology, Volt hopes to leverage its oil and gas expertise in the emerging lithium extraction industry, with a view to achieving commercial-scale operations sometime in 2024. Volt shares lost more than half of their values from the spring and were at 25¢ at press time in Toronto, valuing the company at $25.3 million.