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This Calgary company is using tiny tech to lessen the impact of lithium extraction

EVs may be a greener option, but the materials in their batteries take a heavy toll on the planet. Litus’s nanotechnology makes it easier to source energy without destroying the environment.

Lithium is the lightest metal on the planet, but extracting it from other naturally occurring compounds takes a heavy environmental toll. According to one report, 2.2 million litres of water are required to produce a single ton of the element through evaporation (which involves redirecting underground brine to the earth’s surface, then collecting the residue after the liquid dissipates); the chemicals involved in the process can have further detrimental effects on nearby communities. Lithium is a key component of the rechargeable batteries used to power a range of electronic devices — including electric vehicles, which are hitting the roads in record numbers. As a result, demand for the material is steadily increasing — which amplifies the ecological and economic costs associated with its extraction.

When Ghada Nafie heard about the impact of conventional lithium-sourcing methods, she knew there had to be another way. “Why waste water? Why do we build all of these big evaporation ponds?” Nafie, who grew up in the United States and Egypt and is now based in Calgary, developed an interest in wastewater treatment while studying chemical engineering. She was inspired to develop a more sustainable strategy to access this material.

Building on research she had conducted as part of her PhD program at the University of Calgary, Nafie co-founded Litus — a startup that is developing nanotechnology and chemical processing to enable other companies to extract lithium from water in a matter of minutes. This approach also creates minimal waste, is far less energy-intensive than the standard processes, which can scar environments and disrupt local ecologies, and the operating and capital costs are considerably less than is typically required for conventional lithium extraction. As she puts it, Litus is driven by a desire to see this technology make a positive impact in the sector.

Here, Nafie talks about her entrepreneurial journey and why sustainably sourcing lithium is crucial as the demand for electric vehicles shifts into high gear.

What’s wrong with traditional methods of lithium extraction?

We’re moving toward electric vehicles to curb climate change. But if I have to use environmentally costly methods to gather the raw materials to produce those vehicles, I’m not sure that there are net benefits in the end. We’ve got to think about how we’re doing the extraction. Some of the processes used to supply lithium are harmful to our environment and produce a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Litus’s technology allows us to open untapped resources of lithium that are currently considered not economically feasible [to access] because there is no current commercial technology to extract lithium from low-concentration sources.

Litus uses nanomaterials to extract lithium. For anyone (like me) who is not well versed in this area, how does the process work?

Nanotechnology uses very tiny particles — imagine something you wouldn’t even be able to see. These nanomaterials are able to remove organic and toxic components from water. The best thing is that you can really play with the design and development of nanomaterials to be selective toward a certain component, which ensures high purity and highly concentrated product streams. We’ve scaled up and can now produce as much as five kilograms per day of the nanomaterial that extracts lithium.

Do you recall the moment when you realized you’d found a better way to extract lithium?

In October 2019, I was in the lab with one of my co-founders, and we were testing the first nanomaterial we prepared. It took us exactly six minutes of observing a vial to see whether or not it was extracting lithium. It was a pivotal moment. We’re looking at each other in disbelief: “Oh, my God! We have a breakthrough!” We knew this could be a game-changer for this industry and for the world.

Tell me more about why you think this is a game-changer.

With [an expected] 500 per cent increase in the demand for lithium in EVs by 2030, I want to make sure that there’s enough to bridge the gap. I’m passionate about developing it because it’s the way to make energy more accessible and more abundant.

What challenges have you faced in growing your own business?

Being a woman in engineering — that’s an obstacle. As a woman founder, there’s another layer. Add the layer of being a visible minority with my background and wearing a scarf. With all these barriers, I found a very thick wall between me and a path forward. This was no easy journey. It was hard to get people to listen to me. I was able to earn a seat at the table once I could show I had technology that works. Every day, you tell yourself, “You know what? You can do it.” I’m going after the game-changing outcome rather than just dreaming and talking about it.

What’s next for Litus?

We’re working on a large pilot that will be ready this month. It’s not the kind of thing you get off the shelf — it needs to be optimized for every customer. Each prospective client has their own brine, which we’ll work with. We provide our technology for them to try in a portable unit, test it and then optimize it. We can test the performance of the unit in our lab or we can haul it to a location for testing. We’re on track for commercialization in 2027 — we can’t wait to show the world the capabilities of this technology.

On average, MaRS-supported ventures generate more revenue and create more jobs than the rest of the economy. We call this the “unfair MaRS advantage” — see how we make it happen.

Photo courtesy of Ghada Nafie, Litus

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