Lithium is the new black

Sep 4, 2019

An enterprising Alberta scientist who started her career in the oilpatch is banking on surging interest in electric cars to power her start-up company to success.

Amanda Hall is part of a new breed of Alberta innovators using emerging technology to create solutions. In this case, her company, Summit Nanotech, is utilizing nanotechnology in the energy sector. Instead of extracting oil and gas, however, this company is extracting lithium from brine for the growing electric car battery and mobile phone markets. 

Turning a byproduct into a commodity

Brine, which naturally exists in underground reservoirs, is a byproduct of oil and gas exploration and other mining. By developing an improved method to extract the lithium from the brine, Summit Nanotech is helping to develop a new export commodity for a global market worth billions of dollars.

“The lithium market is hot,” Hall says.

Her company’s process uses no fresh water and less energy, which drives down operation costs and aligns better with regulatory requirements.

Pivot when required

Hall, a geophysicist, spent about 15 years in various jobs in the resource and mining industries. In 2018, she struck out on her own and formed Summit Nanotech. Hall was working on carbon capture and storage when she saw opportunity and shifted focus to lithium extraction.

Innovators need innovative support

Innovation often requires large amounts of capital but also comes with risk. That’s why developers of new or improved products or technologies often wind up in the so-called “valley of death,” because they are unable to secure financing.

Seeing this as a high-risk but potentially high-impact, high-value investment in a new technology with potential benefits for the province, Alberta Innovates supported Hall and her start-up through a variety of programs. Alberta Innovates has also supported two other Alberta companies that are extracting lithium using other processes.

Women in Cleantech

Technology development advisors (TDAs) from Alberta Innovates and the National Research Council helped Hall prepare for the Women in Cleantech Challenge in 2018. Being named a finalist has been instrumental in raising her profile with investors and her company’s chances of success, she says.

“I had never done a pitch in my life and I needed guidance. These guys (advisors) are all working together to support me so I can leapfrog the company from one stepping stone to the next. If I fall down, someone is always there to catch me and get me back on track.”

It points to the complexity of the innovation system, says Matthew Cornall, one of the TDAs at Alberta Innovates who has worked with Hall. “We save Amanda time and help her navigate the maze.”

Alberta Innovates provided a $10,000 micro-voucher which allowed Hall to secure her intellectual property. Another funding investment, under the Alberta Innovates Research & Innovation Associates program, allowed Hall’s company to hire a chemical engineer to work on their prototype.

This was a major turning point, she says. “It allowed us to gather the data needed to validate our process. We need data to attract investors and other funding. We wouldn’t have built the prototype as quickly as we did, if it weren’t for Alberta Innovates.” Without that funding, the company could have fallen into the valley of death, she says.

“Strategic investment by Alberta Innovates at a key time helped Amanda to accelerate to where she is now,” Cornall notes.