MGX Minerals announced Tuesday that it is deploying its first rapid lithium extraction system to treat wastewater from oil production in central Alberta.

Developed by PurLucid Treatment Solutions, a partially owned water-treatment subsidiary of MGX, the new extraction system allows for the filtration of oil from wastewater, also known as produced water, generated from underground water reservoirs that are pumped through oil wells, with the most lithium coming from fracking operations. Once the oil, silica and alkaline minerals are removed from the wastewater, the lithium is then recovered as lithium chloride, which is then sold to upgraders to allow for use in battery products and other industries.

“It all came about because were in the water treatment business, particularly for the petroleum industry and MGX were looking to develop a rapid extraction process for lithium from petroleum brine, that they call ‘petrolithium,’” PurLucid president and CEO Dr. Preston McEachern said. “They approached us for a water treatment solution so that they could run an evaporative process. We have a lot of experience with evaporators in the water treatment space and I said to him, ‘You know there might be a better way to do this.’”

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Wastewater is plentifully produced alongside oil, but until now has been treated as a waste product, stored underground or placed in tanks to be disposed of later. MGX’s new extraction system has the potential to supply an in-demand resource while simultaneously reducing the environmental impact of Alberta’s oil sands by allowing oil companies to reuse the filtered wastewater. The process works for wastewater from gas production as well as natural brine, and according to McEachern, takes about six hours to complete.

Jared Lazerson, president and CEO of MGX, claims that the water treatment solution could help reduce environmental footprints of oil wells up to 80 per cent by removing sitting basins of wastewater. The company currently has two petrolithium projects, one in Alberta and the other in Utah.

“It's certainly the most interesting thing that's happened in the oil fields since they figured out how to increase their water recycling,” Lazerson said. “This is a major move to be able to decrease their environmental costs significantly.”

While the amount of lithium recovered from wastewater is less than what would be found in natural brine, the process takes advantage of an alternative resource which oil companies are willing to pay to have filtered and sent back for reuse, saving money on storage and transportation of moving the water in trucks.

“It depends entirely on the concentration of lithium in the brine, and we've seen everything from near zero to several thousand ppm,” McEachern said. “On a petrolithium type project, there basically isn't much more than 300 ppm. So, you're basically talking about 300 grams per cubic metre of water.”

While Lazerson said he anticipates the lithium extracted from the wastewater will not be massive — about 10 tonnes or $100,000 worth per year — the combination of the lithium and water treatment sides of the business make it an exciting prospect.

I think it's a whiz-bang solution, and it really reflects a fundamental paradigm shift in technology,” Lazerson said.

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According to an MGX press release, the treatment system should be installed by early November. Once completed, the processing facility north of Edmonton will be able to receive wastewater from multiple clients in the area and will be able to process 750 barrels per day.

Beyond the potential of reclaiming lithium from wastewater, MGX hopes to test the technology in South America’s “Lithium triangle” — an area overlapping Chile, Bolivia and Argentina that contains 54 per cent of the world’s lithium resources. There the current prevailing method of lithium extraction is a lengthy process with a significant environmental footprint. Ponds of salt water or brine with lithium in solution sit in the sun to eventually evaporate to the point when the lithium can be efficiently extracted. These ponds can sit for over a year before they’ve evaporated enough to extract the lithium within. MGX is looking to bypass both the time and space required using its new extraction system.

The company announced in August that it had acquired a 50 per cent stake in Chilean Lithium Salars, a company that owned three prospective lithium projects in Chile. On September 27, MGX revealed that it had been granted approval by the Chilean National Geology and Mining Service to carry out a six-hole drill program at its Francisco Basin project, located 30 kilometres south of the Salar de Maricunga salt flats. The company intends to test its rapid extraction system in the region and to lend the technology to smaller lithium producers in the region in exchange for a royalty fee.