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Pioneering Alberta’s Lithium Industry


E3 Lithium’s Chris Doornbos | Photo by Riverwood Photography

It’s tempting to chalk business success up to being in the right place at the right time. To hold the notion that a little (or a lot of) luck can make all the difference. Though luck is undoubtedly always involved to some degree, great success befalls to the business that has positioned itself and is nimble enough to take advantage of lucks opportunities. Put another way: everyone experiences a bit of luck, it’s what you do with it that matters.  


For E3 Lithium, it’s that perfect combination of entrepreneurial vision, focused perseverance, attention to opportunity and – yes – luck, that has resulted in the promising position the company finds itself in today.  


“We’re doing really good,” confirms president and CEO Chris Doornbos. “In the past couple of years, the company’s grown from a team of five people developing an R&D project, to developing a new technology and working with new resources, to a team of 30 people today and growing. We’ve got an office in Calgary and we’re looking to build a lithium processing plant. The company has solidified itself as a leader in lithium in Alberta and Canada.”  


Formed in 2016, E3 was created to take advantage of an untapped opportunity in Alberta: lithium in underground saline formation water. “We knew there was lithium in these brines in southern Alberta, but no one had really looked at it,” Doornbos explains. “The opportunity was to see how we could develop this into a producing asset, which is something we do in Alberta every day.”  


At that time, very little lithium was produced across the globe, particularly in North America. With the advent and commercialization of the electric vehicle in particular, the demand for lithium has exploded in recent years.  


“Most of the lithium in the world today is produced in mines in the outback of Australia, and then processed in China,” Doornbos says. “China controls close to 80 per cent of all the battery quality lithium products the world makes. So to have a secure supply of a domestic source of lithium for the North American and European supply chain has become increasingly important.”  


E3 uses a different and unique source for lithium production. “We pump it out of a well, like oil, but it’s just water,” he explains, “and we use direct extraction technology that allows us to remove the lithium chemically. Then we refine it and produce a battery grade lithium product.”  


The company pumps this briny water from its large landholdings in the Leduc Aquifer (located south of Edmonton and north of Calgary), an expansive ancient reef complex occurring over two kilometres below ground level. Over 4,000 wells have been drilled in E3’s broader project area over a 78-year oil and gas development period.  


“The resource base in just the Bashaw district alone is five times larger than the entire rest of Canada’s resource at that level combined,” Doornbos says. “And that’s just ours. Alberta is, in my opinion, the largest untapped source of lithium on the planet. It can support a lithium industry that will compete globally in terms of total production capabilities.” 


E3 developed its own chemical process – called direct lithium extraction (DLE) – and has tested other similar technologies developed by third parties. “We’ve tested four thirdparty technologies just to cover our bases,” he explains. “We’ve now selected an advanced process that we’ll take commercial, and we’re working through the engineering of that now. We’ve had some pretty big successes on that front.”  


The fact that there are over 4,000 wells drilled in the Leduc from oil and gas exploration on E3’s property means there is a ton of data the company can use. Nevertheless, in 2022 the company drilled two more wells and repurposed an existing oil and gas well from an area in the aquifer where lithium concentration data was lacking. “These confirmed the lithium grades in our production zone, and it was a great production test,” Doornbos says enthusiastically. “It was pretty impactful to allowing us to continue.”  


In 2023, the company did a successful field pilot plant, another huge hurdle in the journey from R&D project to resource development operation. It tested its own DLE as well as the four third-party technologies. “Five technologies were all demonstrated to be technically feasible for the project,” Doornbos says. “And that is a huge benefit because now we have optionality. The risk of the technology, while not eliminated completely, is significantly reduced.”  


“The success of our field pilot plant inspired confidence in both the market and in our internal team to be able to spend the time and energy to design and then build a plant,” he continues. “We were happy with the results and the process we’re going forward with. It moved us from being a resource developer, to a technology developer, back to a resource developer. Brought us back to our roots.”  


Now, E3 is focused on building a full-sized plant in its Bashaw landholdings, called the Clearwater Project. E3’s Preliminary Economic Assessment, released in 2020, outlined an estimated life of 20 years at 20,000 tons of lithium per year produced, and a construction start date in 2026. These numbers will be updated with the release of the company’s Prefeasibility Study, which E3 is aiming to release late in Q2. 


“Our Bashaw district alone is likely capable of producing up to 150,000 tons per year,” he notes. “So there’s probably multiple plants we can build there.”  


E3 also owns the Rocky development area, and some land in Saskatchewan.  


While the majority of E3’s staff are working on designing and, then hopefully building, the first lithium plant, the other priority is looking for customers. 


The global lithium market today is primarily made up of battery and car companies who buy lithium carbonate or hydroxide on direct sale contracts. E3 will be looking to refine its customers from a long list of multinational corporations. Doornbos notes: “Just looking locally, the list of companies that are building battery facilities in Canada and the U.S. is pretty long, most of these coming from South Korea, Japan and Europe.”  


E3 will be able to produce either lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, depending on what its customers want.  


Sustainable operations will be incorporated into the plant, including looking to completely eliminate any freshwater consumption other than drinking water. “We are also committed to immediate reclamation of the majority of our well pads and using centralized pads for a smaller footprint,” he explains. “Those are best practices in Alberta.”  


One challenge will be the carbon footprint of the plant: “The source of power in Alberta is not the cleanest in terms of carbon intensity. And our lithium products will be ranked based on this. So we’re looking at implementing the use of Alberta technologies for carbon capture storage to reduce the emitted carbon as the production matures.”  


As a small company with a passionate team, E3 focuses on a couple of community initiatives to support every year. “Usually it’s time more so than money, but everyone on the team is very passionate about giving back.”  


“We’re excited to be building a first-of-its-kind operation in Alberta,” Doornbos reflects, “however it looks and feels a lot of like oil and gas. So it’s very familiar to the people who work at E3 and to the locals who we’ll be working around. It’s familiar to the companies we’ll be hiring. And that’s important. Because it is a new commodity for Alberta, so there’s a diversification angle, but we don’t have to diversify the workforce.” 


“We get to diversify the economy by producing something that’s not related to hydrocarbons in terms of its market,” he continues. “So we can keep people employed when other companies aren’t hiring. That’s pretty exciting.”  


While there certainly is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time, E3’s success today is largely due to the foresight, guts and hard work of Doornbos and everyone on the team. Indeed, building a whole new industry doesn’t just happen by pure luck.