Dec. 3, 2020

Lithium could boost Alberta’s resource sector: paper

Research in Faculty of Law highlights potential opportunities for Alberta and Canada
electronics inside a computer
Lithium ion battery Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Electric vehicles are not an overly common sight on Calgary’s roads. You may pass the Tesla dealership on Glenmore Trail, or spot the occasional car on your roads, but it will likely be a long time until more houses are outfitted with an outlet to plug in your electric vehicle.

According to a researcher in the Faculty of Law, the shift could happen more quickly if our province starts to realize the untapped potential of lithium mining in Alberta. Lithium is a key component in electric car batteries, as well as mobile phones, and medical and military technology.

“Lithium was first discovered in our province in the '90s, when the Alberta Geological Survey discovered its existence in saline brines associated with oil and gas reservoirs across the province,” says Dr. Rudiger Tscherning, PhD. “Interest grew in 2009 when a few mining companies solicited metallic and industrial mineral permits, but the interest was short-lived.”

Bumpy road for industry in Alberta

Alberta’s lithium industry experienced financial troubles, and mining efforts were abandoned. When the global price of the mineral jumped in 2015, interest grew again, and in 2018, the Alberta government reported “lithium was the main focus of metallic and industrial mineral exploration in Alberta.”

So what are the benefits for our province? Tscherning and alumnus Brady Chapman, JD’20, explore this topic in their new paper, “Navigating the emerging lithium rush: lithium extraction from brines for clean-tech battery storage technologies,” which was just published in the Journal of Energy and Natural Resources Law. The paper examines the legal considerations and risks associated with the development of a novel lithium extraction industry in Alberta and Western Canada.

“The paper looks at the subsurface regimes in Alberta as well as the ambiguities the provincial government may need to address," says Tscherning. "We conclude that the current legal landscape in our province, from both a regulatory and contractual perspective, needs further clarification if we want to attract a large-scale and viable lithium extraction industry.”

Lithium key for global energy transition

According to their research, lithium and other critical and strategic minerals (CSMs) are essential for the transition of the global economy to “net-zero.” Lithium-ion batteries are efficient and have fast charging and discharging rates, which makes them of interest for the large-scale implementation of renewable electricity sources by storing this clean electricity in industrial-scale batteries.

“Tapping into the valuable resource in our province will allow Alberta and Canada the opportunity to expand clean tech business opportunities into the transportation sector, the manufacturing of renewable energy generation installations, and for the storage of renewable electricity,” says Tscherning. “Alberta could attract a clean technology battery storage industry by drawing on the province’s “localized” lithium supply chains and to help Alberta stay relevant as a global producer of lithium and CMSs.”