This article is part of a regular series highlighting the innovative ways Scotiabank clients are doing their part to cut carbon emissions.
As Amanda Hall reached the summit of a mountain near Lhasa in Tibet in 2016 and spotted a monk on his cellphone, she had an epiphany. A seasoned veteran of the oil and gas industry, Hall realized that demand was growing for lithium-ion batteries to power items such as mobile devices and electric vehicles (EVs), but supply shortages of the metal were bottlenecking the transition to clean energy.
That moment became the genesis for the company’s patented, direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology, denaLi™. The technology uses advanced lithium-selective nanomaterials to pull lithium from underground brines, also known as salars, resulting in the creation of high-purity lithium, a process that is faster, provides higher yields, and is more sustainable than traditional extraction methods.
It has also garnered Hall recognition on some prestigious lists including the Women of Influence Top 25 in 2022 and Prairies regional finalist for Canada’s 2023 EY Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Returning from Tibet, Hall, who has a Bachelor of Science in Geophysics, continued drilling heavy oil wells for another year, while she saved money to go it alone. In 2018, she quit her job and sold her house to work full-time on her business.
“I’m a single mom of three kids, so this was not an easy decision. But it was one of those things in life that I couldn’t not do,” says Hall, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Calgary-based Summit Nanotech, which is a client of Scotiabank.
“I had no income early in the life of my company, so I just kept selling shares from the oil and gas companies I had invested in over the years to make ends meet.”
A lot has changed in those years. For starters, Hall now pays herself a salary, and she leads a team of more than 100 industry leaders who can address everything from technology design to field implementation for mining companies that want to change the way they extract lithium from brine. Summit Nanotech recently completed a multi-client pilot program with several mining companies in Chile and is focused on demonstration scale in the field next year. The technology will eventually be sold commercially to mining companies to extract lithium from brine.
This April, Summit Nanotech opened its own facility in Santiago, Chile, which will serve as a focal point for scaling the technology and executing programs for reinjection and water recovery. It also hired a Chief Operations Officer, Gautam Parimoo, who has experience implementing similar technologies in Latin America, most recently at Lake Resources NL, where he was responsible for the development of new lithium assets using DLE technology. Jeremy Patt joined the company in May as Chief Technology Officer, a role he previously held at AquaHydrex. Pratt led the scale up of pilot plants and research programs and established first-of-kind manufacturing facilities at Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and various venture-backed startups.
Lithium is extracted either from hard rock or brine resources. The former is done through mechanical, thermal, and chemical processes that result in substantial greenhouse gas emissions and a large ecological footprint. The traditional method of producing lithium-ion from brine also affects the environment, because it uses large evaporation ponds that remove vast amounts of water from the ecosystem and can leech impurities into shallow aquifers on which nearby communities rely for scarce freshwater.
While multiple companies are working to develop competing versions of this technology, Hall believes that Summit Nanotech’s DLE technology addresses most of the existing shortcomings associated with lithium production. The denaLi™ technology, which is tailored for miners working in the lithium triangle — the high-altitude desert salars in South America that purportedly have enough lithium to power the energy transition in the Americas — doubles the yield of lithium, speeding up the transition to EVs.
At the same time, the technology cuts production time from 18 months to one day, doesn’t require large evaporation ponds, reduces waste by up to 90%, minimizes the use of chemicals and allows for the recycling of nearly 95% of the water used. The technology also supports the underground aquifers by enabling companies to reinject the spent brine back into the reservoir.
“We set very hard and fast limits as we were developing the technology to the efficiency in energy, water use, the waste production, even the logistics of driving a truck to site,” Hall said.
“We measure it daily to make sure that we keep up with the standards we set. Sustainability is just such an important part of growing a strong business,” she added.
Summit Nanotech also puts store in getting community buy-in. The company spent time conferring with the people living near salt flats, asking them what they did and didn’t like and what concerned them. “They all had a common message,” Hall said. “They understand the importance of lithium, but they want the process to be less invasive.”
From left: Vivian Rocha, Director, Technology Implementation, Summit Nanotech; Amanda Hall, CEO and Founder, Summit Nanotech; Vladimir, President of the Atacameños Community; Paul Barbaro, General Manager Chile, Summit Nanotech
According to Summit Nanotech’s website, batteries are expected to make up 90% of lithium demand by 2030 and production will need to grow 20 times by 2050. World production of lithium in 2021 was 104,800 tonnes, the most recent data from the Ministry of Natural Resources Canada shows. More than 50% of mined lithium comes from Australia, while Chile produces nearly 25% of the total. Bolivia, Chile and Argentina (the “lithium triangle”) have the largest estimated resources, with nearly 50 million tonnes between them. While Canada has about 3% of the world reserves, the ministry notes that currently it is not a producer of lithium.
Hall hopes the technology will enable mining companies to start processing lithium soon on the scale needed to speed up the transition to electric vehicles. Companies will be able to purchase the number of commercial units needed to meet their desired production output. For example, if a miner wants to produce 20,000 tonnes of lithium a year, it would need to purchase five units.
The goal is to sell the units in South America. “We are trying to open up the supply chain north-south in the Americas,” Hall said. “I can see that in the future; we’re just not there yet,” she said, noting that most of the lithium being mined in the Americas now goes to Asia.
Salar de Talar, Antofagasta, Chile
Moving support for EVs
Hall chose Scotiabank as a partner for the company’s banking needs in Chile because of its presence in Latin America, but she also appreciates the Bank’s attention to the environment. It’s important to work with partners that support the transition to clean technology, she said. “I always say one person can change the future if they work with the right people. When Scotiabank invests in environmentally conscious businesses, then those businesses can move forward with more speed,” she said.
“If we continue transitioning support, especially in banks, from hydrocarbons to renewables and EVs, then that’s an important part of our progression toward the survival of our civilization.”
“We’re incredibly proud to have supported Summit Nanotech’s journey with dedicated banking services in both Canada and Chile, which has helped the company accelerate the development of its efficient lithium extraction technology,” Phillip Cutts, Associate Director, Commercial Banking, said. “Scotiabank recognizes the important role that batteries will play in the transition to net-zero emissions, and we look forward to continuing to work with Summit Nanotech to drive progress towards a cleaner future,” he added.
“Close collaboration across the countries Scotiabank operates in to ensure sustainability focused clients can seamlessly accept money, move money and manage money helps us all build a better future” Joseph Villamizar, Vice President International Transaction Banking, said.
When it comes to saving the planet, Hall believes it is imperative the world be converted to electrification as quickly as possible. “The climate change rule of thumb is that observable impact is five to 10 years behind the greenhouse gases we’re emitting today. Even if we stopped emitting hydrocarbons completely right now, we still have 10 years of climate disasters before we level-set again. This is a reality that we will need to teach our children to adapt to.”
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