Calgary startup awarded $1-million grant for greener lithium extraction – Calgary Herald

‘The whole idea behind the technology was to emulate the human kidney’

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For oil industry geophysicist Amanda Hall, the inspiration for finding a cleaner, more sustainable process of filtering lithium came from the human body’s own filtration system — the kidneys.


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“The whole idea behind the technology was to emulate the human kidney. This is how we move ions around in our body, concentrate them, remove impurities and clean, and I thought, ‘What if we just scale that up and try it at an industrial scale?’” said Hall.

Turns out, it was a $15-million idea.

Hall is the CEO and founder of Summit Nanotech, a Calgary-based tech startup behind a new green lithium-ion extraction method that increases yield but also significantly reduces greenhouse gases, fresh water use and chemical waste.

Three years ago, Hall and five other female innovators were selected from 150 applicants to take part in an intensive program called the Women in Cleantech Challenge. Started in 2018 through a partnership between MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto-based urban innovation hub, and Natural Resources Canada, the three-year program raises up top female innovators from across the country by advancing breakthrough ideas into market-ready cleantech products.


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On Nov. 30, MaRS and Natural Resources Canada announced Hall as the $1-million grand-prize winner at the end of the program.

Extracting lithium — a metal used in electric vehicles, mobile phones, laptops, and renewable energy storage — has been a highly chemical-based process to date, Hall explained. Different chemicals are added at various stages in a high-heat purification process to separate lithium ions from impurities brought up from underground brine reservoirs.

“I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this without using chemicals,’” Hall said. So, Summit developed lithium selective materials, in the form of beads or membranes, that identify lithium based on its atomic size and electrical properties.


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This nanomaterial essentially attaches to the lithium-ion and pulls it out of the brine through a physical reaction; no chemistry required. She said the process improves yield and significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and lithium and water waste.

“In Australia — where 40 per cent of our lithium comes from — in when they do hard-rock mining, 16 tonnes of CO2 is produced for every tonne of lithium that’s produced. Our technology gets that down to 2.6 tonnes. That’s about one-sixth of the CO2 emitted,” Hall said.

“On top of that, we use no fresh water instead of other processes that use over 20,000 litres per tonne. We also reduce waste by 90 per cent for every tonne of lithium produced compared to the existing process.”


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Amanda Hall, CEO of Summit Nanotech, stands in one of her company’s green lithium extraction units being prepared for shipment to Chile in Calgary on Sunday, December 5, 2021. Hall was announced as the $1-million grand prize winner of the Impact Canada Women in Cleantech Challenge.
Amanda Hall, CEO of Summit Nanotech, stands in one of her company’s green lithium extraction units being prepared for shipment to Chile in Calgary on Sunday, December 5, 2021. Hall was announced as the $1-million grand prize winner of the Impact Canada Women in Cleantech Challenge. Photo by Gavin Young/Postmedia

Going through the program gave Summit the ability to develop the method in a state-of-the-art federal lab, scale it up and attract investment. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing — when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, health restrictions cut off Summit’s access to the laboratory and the team had to get creative.

“We almost went Breaking Bad into a mobile van,” Hall said with a laugh. “But at the last minute, we found a technology centre out in the country, attached to a barn in Bearspaw, Alberta. Sure enough, they let us build out a lab there and continue our technology development.”

The Women in Cleantech Challenge was modelled after a U.S. program in California called Cyclotron Road, which supports leading entrepreneurial scientists as they advance technology projects, said Tyler Hamilton, director of cleantech with MaRS and co-founder of the Women in Cleantech Challenge.


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Through the program, female innovators with novel ideas are given business advice, as well as technical and financial support to grow and succeed as cleantech entrepreneurs.

“We really dive in and tease out some of those great gems of innovation that might otherwise just dry up on the vine,” Hamilton said. “It’s very intimidating for a lot of women to take that leap because they don’t feel they have the support network there to do it.”

MaRS would do quarterly check-ins with the six finalists to ensure they were on track, and an investor panel would regularly hear their updates and pitches.

In addition to business supports and advisory services provided by MaRS, each finalist received up to $250,000 in federal laboratory support and an annual stipend to help offset living and travel costs so they could focus on building their businesses.


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At the end of the program, the innovator who had made the most progress building her business was awarded the million-dollar prize. The winning innovator was chosen by an esteemed panel of judges, which included renowned author and environmental activist Margaret Atwood.

Hall was awarded the grand prize not only for being consistently on target in developing the new method, but for raising millions of dollars in investment, Hamilton said. In total, Hall’s proposal attracted $14 million of venture capital within the span of a few years.

“She’s basically giving another option to mine an increasingly valuable resource, but she’s doing it in a way that’s much more sustainable,” Hamilton said.

Hall said the grant will top off the $15-million pool to further grow the company and Canada’s lithium industry.

“For the Women in Cleantech money, I promised the organizers and Natural Resources Canada that I would use that money in Canada to develop Canadian lithium. And that’s what my plan is.”

Twitter: @BrittGervaisAB



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