From left: Dr. Chris Holmden (PhD) and Dr. Lambert Baraut-Guinet (PhD). (Photos: Submitted)
From left: Dr. Chris Holmden (PhD) and Dr. Lambert Baraut-Guinet (PhD). (Photos: Submitted)

USask research uses innovative techniques to trace lithium deep underground

SASKATOON – A University of Saskatchewan (USask)-led research team has been awarded nearly $1.39 million through the NSERC Alliance Missions grant for critical minerals research to help detect deposits of lithium that are key to renewable energy initiatives.

Spearheaded by Dr. Chris Holmden (PhD), a professor in Geological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science and the co-director of the Saskatchewan Isotope Laboratory, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada-supported research project will trace lithium-brine origins using lithium isotopes to advance an innovative project to better predict and track economic concentrations of lithium located deep below Saskatchewan’s surface.

“We want to know why the lithium is more concentrated in some formations and less concentrated in others,” Holmden said. “And then we want to tell the industry – once we have a better understanding of what controls those levels of high lithium concentration in those deep aquifers – maybe you should be looking over here.”

Lithium is a soft silver-white metal with a variety of uses in modern technology. Crucially, lithium compounds are considered a key material in the transition to renewable energy as about 80 per cent of lithium’s use around the world is for the manufacture of batteries, electric vehicles and power storage, as per the federal government’s website.

Holmden’s project will analyze lithium sources from across Saskatchewan to determine their different isotopes – variations of the same element determined by the number of neutrons in each atom. These different isotopic sources of lithium can then be used to understand how different sources of lithium contribute to brine-lithium concentrations, and to develop better distribution models for mapping this critical mineral.

Saskatchewan has substantial amounts of brine-lithium. As oil is drilled from the earth, saltwater from underground reservoirs more commonly known as oilfield brine is extracted along with it. Many of these brines are full of lithium in various concentrations, and several companies are working towards establishing commercial lithium production facilities in Saskatchewan’s Williston Basin.

Dr. Lambert Baraut-Guinet (PhD), one of the project’s leading geochemists from the Saskatchewan Isotope Lab, said lithium is more important than ever as the world explores new sources of energy – and this project is crucial to the development of a brine-lithium industry in Saskatchewan.

“It’s amazing – it's a mining project, and this is at the forefront of the work we need to do to transition to a greener economy,” he said. “Eventually helping extract lithium in a cleaner way in Saskatchewan than what is done elsewhere is a very important objective. And using isotopes to do that is very exciting.”

The research team is working with industry and government partners including CEO Cam Taylor of ROK Resources, Dr. Ben Rostron (PhD) with Isobrine Solutions, and geologist Gavin Jensen with the Saskatchewan Geological Survey to make this research project a reality.

The most current understanding of where lithium can be found in the basin comes from decades of historical geological surveys in oil producing areas, so establishing a brine-lithium deposit model is necessary to guide expensive drilling operations in frontier areas of the basin.

“Nowadays, lithium is produced either by hard rock mining or by continental brine evaporation processes that consume a lot of water,” Baraut-Guinet said. “Direct Lithium Extraction is the next step for companies that want to just tap into Saskatchewan’s deep reserves of brine lithium.”

Due to lithium’s importance in the manufacturing of batteries and other energy-related infrastructure, Holmden and Baraut-Guinet said it’s important for Canada to have access to the mineral. This project could position Saskatchewan at the forefront of providing that resource.

“With the criticality of minerals, different countries are going to want their own local supply, and Canada ought to have its own as well,” Holmden said. “The Williston Basin has the potential to become really important to Canada’s critical mineral security.”

Three other projects also received NSERC Alliance Missions grant for critical minerals research, totalling more than $4.13 million for all four USask-led critical minerals research projects. Those projects are:

  • Kevin Ansdell (PhD), Department of Geological Sciences – Life cycle assessment of critical minerals in a copper-zinc system – $1,162,800
  • Yuanming Pan (PhD), Department of Geological Sciences – Synchrotron characterization on the surface chemistry of spodumene and other lithium silicates: Toward efficient and sustainable development of Canadian lithium pegmatites – $770,498
  • Camille Partin (PhD), Department of Geological Sciences – Unlocking Canada’s rare earth element (REE) potential: a multidisciplinary approach to understand high-grade critical REE mineralization in northern Saskatchewan $807,218


For more information, contact:
Daniel Hallen
USask Media Relations