Humans are the third pillar of sustainability, and for too long, they’ve been left out of the equation of sustainable lithium production. So it’s about time to integrate all shareholders and first nations in particular in the lithium revolution discussion. How? Let’s explore:
(Also check my entire Lithium deep dive!)
with 🎙️ Christopher Brown – CEO at Helios Corporation
💧 Helios acknowledges that the World’s current trajectory is unsustainable and focuses its expertise in Energy, Power, Biomass, Capital Markets, and the latest environmental technology to achieve more, using less.
What we covered:
💡 How geothermal energy can revolutionize lithium extraction and how it may actually do it
⚡️ Why the future of lithium production is tied to reducing carbon intensity and the secrets behind low-carbon lithium extraction
🌎 What the key to sustainable lithium mining is and how HeliosX is bridging the gap with eco-friendly practices
📈 How to invest wisely in the thriving critical minerals industry while still not being investment advice (hey, this is a podcast!)
🧪 How DLE technologies are reshaping the lithium extraction landscape and how groundbreaking lab experiments can give us a glimpse of the future
🚀 How long it takes from lab to commercial production, and the timeline to make lithium extraction profitable
🔋 How lithium extraction can and shall be both profitable and environmentally friendly
🌱 Green goals vs. economic reality: the real cost of an accelerated EV program and its challenges for the electrical grid.
🔄 Scaling up lithium extraction: How can companies transition from lab success to field operations? Let’s break down the logical steps
🤝 Collaboration in the critical minerals industry: the ideal partners for driving positive change and their shared philosophies.
🌍 Impact metrics that matter: how to contribute to economic development and low carbon intensity while integrating the human dimension
💰 Investing in critical minerals and the associated risk, the winning formula to sustainable mining, how revolutionizing battery production is a race, the next big thing, first nations, zooming out before we zoom in… and much more!
🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥
Teaser: Sustainable Lithium Extraction
🔗 Come say hi to Christopher on LinkedIn
🔗 Check Helios Corporation’s website
is on Linkedin ➡️
Table of contents
Editorial: The Human Dimension of Sustainable Lithium Extraction
Over the past episodes, we’ve discussed why we need more lithium, where to find new sources, and how to unlock them from a technical standpoint. We’ve discussed fascinating projects and drawn a line toward a more sustainable future for the decade to come.
But sustainability isn’t only environmental and financial impact; it’s also the human dimension. And even when lithium is literally found in deserts, those places still belong to someone and to a culture, and they historically had a role and use that wasn’t lithium extraction for several centuries.
That is true wherever you are on earth, from South America’s first nations to Canada ones, through local communities in all the places where unconventional sources of lithium are to be mined in the future.
Everything in life can be done against someone else or instead in concertation. And to that extent, what we discuss with Christopher today offers a framework for comprehension, best practices, and way forwards.
As I mentioned in my intro, when Helios acknowledges that the World’s trajectory is unsustainable, it’s also important to ensure that the remedy is better than the plague. So sustainability is a keyword, for sure, and an ambitious one. From Argentina to Canada through the US, today’s exploration is one of the deepest we’ve had in this mini-series, and I’m really thankful to Christopher for the incredible openness he demonstrated and the great pedagogy you’ll get to experience in just a second.
Right before that, let me remind you that if you like what you hear, you can help others benefit from it by sharing this episode with a friend, a colleague, your boss, or your team, thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I’ll meet you on the other side!
These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂
Antoine Walter: Hi Christopher. Welcome to the show.
Christopher Brown: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Antoine Walter: I’m very excited to have you today because we will be touching a topic, which is, let’s say, slightly aside from the usual water topics and yet quite hot right now in the water world, but before going to the depth of that, their traditions on that microphone, and it starts with asking you to send me a postcard from the place you’re at.
And actually you are in Calgary. So what can you tell me about Calgary, which I would ignore by now?
Christopher Brown: Well, thank you first for having me on. I appreciate the time and uh, calgary’s a fantastic dynamic young city still focused on, oil opportunities here. But we’re definitely working on transitioning to the new lithium bride space and this is sort of a, an interest area of ours.
And we’re actually quite the emerging technology hub as well. So I know Calgary has been quite the dynamic young city that’s slowly growing onto its own. And it’s just been a fantastic place to live and work.
Antoine Walter: So Oil tech hub and in the transition phase, does that have a link with what you’re doing today at Helios?
Christopher Brown: Oh, a hundred percent. so The work we do is right now a lot of ex oil and gas guys, they’re taking their fundamental technology experience and transitioning that to how to better extract critical minerals from Alberta. And there’s an exact correlation for skill sets that go across the board, that focus on how to best and optimally extract subsurface lithium brine to make a commercial today.
And we’re, close proximity, university of Calgary where we have a lot of access to amazing technical talent that’s looking at the next generation type of lithium recovery to make these commercial opportunities come to fruition.
Antoine Walter: And what’s brought you to that position? I mean, I’ve seen that you’ve been in engineering, you’ve been in finance. How do you come across lithium?
Christopher Brown: so Lithium came on our radar screen as we were focused on renewable technologies. And then to take a step back Helios Corporation I founded in 2016 with a focus to merge engineering and finance to assist actually, initially indigenous nations and empower them with environmentally positive technologies for commercial opportunities.
And along those lines we reviewed a number of investments that evolved, the application of renewables, but also the application of extraction technologies. And through that course of action we had discovered that there’s an amazing large depth of resources available in lithium brines in Alberta that haven’t been touched or properly reviewed.
And we thought we could bring a technical expertise to fruition that would commercialize those opportunities.
Antoine Walter: if I’m right today, Helios is around 70 people.
Christopher Brown: there’s a mix of companies that make up under the Helios Corporation and partnership groups. For example I founded a company up in the oil sands which became the largest environmental protection group of all the tailing ponds. And so that gave us direct hands-on experience with being around large bodies of water and the nature of protecting those for environmental purposes.
And so that has grown from when I founded that with two people, it grown to actually over a hundred employees today within the Helios X group. We have a staff down in Argentina who’s currently reviewing resources down there for opportunities for potentially evaporation pond or DLE processes.
And then we have four or five employees up in Calgary that with additional consultants are looking at how to commercialize reservoirs up in Canada for lithium brine extraction. So each of the groups has its own focus. We do have a greenhouse focused area as well and as well as a fiber optic company that we’re working with First Nations to deploy to.
So we’re a diverse, trying to empower both technologies to indigenous nations while moving along with renewables and extraction technologies for critical minerals. So a very diverse group of companies.
Antoine Walter: So you mentioned these critical materials. You also mentioned DLE, so you are active in two of the three fields of this lithium world.
You have the rock mining, so that’s the one you’re not in. Then you have these evaporation ponds and the direct lithium attraction. And those are the two, if I’m right, where you are active. So are you active on an equal basis or what’s your view into these various fields?
Christopher Brown: For our focus we’re subsurface experts. We come from oil and gas industries, so we’re good with fluid dynamics and analysis of subsurface fluids. So that’s why we stay within the brine universe for lithium extraction opportunities. The other two types of lithium opportunities are pure hard rock, which involves stripping away the surface of the earth and digging down deep in the traditional mining techniques.
actually the third type of lithium is a lithium that’s embedded in clays. And this is an evolution that’s continued to grow in the us. For extraction of clay-based lithium where you do like a slurry and you extract the lithium via different type of processes. But our focus is particularly in brines.
And to give you an idea of what that is essentially subsurface. You have these reservoirs filled with salt water, and within that salt water exists lithium. And the goal here is to extract the salt water from the subsurface using wells, pumping them to surface, and then deciding on two courses of action for technology.
The one proven course is evaporation ponds, and that’s proven commercial and currently used. 70% of the lithium currently produced today is. Produced via that method versus 30% is hard rock extraction. And then the other emerging technology, which is what we’re tracking very closely, is direct lithium extraction.
And what that technology proposes is essentially to reduce the amount of fresh water utilization and order to extract the lithium ions directly from the salt water and then re-inject the salt water back subsurface.
Antoine Walter: You mentioned Argentina, you mentioned Alberta and Calgary. If I’m right, you have a third region where you’re active, which is ne Nevada. So is it these clay subsurface sources, which you were mentioning, or is it something different?
Christopher Brown: Well, each one’s a little bit different, so to speak. So no reservoir is the same. And so to break each of the three basins up for visual is that, in Argentina, the reservoir type, we have there is like a bowl and the bowl’s filled with sediments and the salt in the water is based in those sediments.
In the bowl in Canada, we flip the bowl upside down and that’s the container type of style we have in Canada on in reefs. And these reefs are filled from below with a geothermal system , that essentially hot water from below brought up calcium and lithium and magnesium and filled the bowl.
That’s upside down. Now in Nevada, it’s a slightly different one where the bowl is like the Argentine bowl, but it is actually being fed from below. And so the segments and the geothermal work is drawing up the lithium to the bowl in
Nevada’s play types are smaller, but there’s a proven play called Silver Peak the only producing lithium asset that’s been on production for many decades in Nevada using lithium brine.
They do evaporation ponds and people are looking to expand and hopefully create new commercial opportunities in the vicinity of that Silver Peak asset. And two of our assets are in very close proximity to the Silver Peak. So we’re cautiously optimistic. The geology is somewhat similar, but we need to drill some exploration well to really prove it.
Antoine Walter: And so your expertise isn’t understanding what’s below the surface before starting to drill.
Christopher Brown: That’s right. We do a combination of things, applying our reservoir engineering skills to both define the resource subsurface, but then we do a lot of advanced probabilistic statistical analysis. It’s a bit different because in the mining sector, they don’t take a statistical probabilistic mathematical approach to their type of resource assessments.
It’s more of a bulk volume. I have this much resource, I drill this hole has this much pay. I’m extrapolating this in the region, and that’s their number. From a more detailed technical engineering side that we bring from the oil and gas side. We take a far more complex approach to these to do the analysis, a much more sophisticated approach.
So we try and do more detailed distributions of the potential resource outcomes to give us a better sense of where we should focus our monies today. And so from a ranking perspective, Argentina is like heaven. It is beautiful reservoirs, amazingly high content lithium rich brines. The only issue there is indigenous type of groups that need to be consulted with are a little bit apprehensive and understanding the work that’s being done.
Industry’s done a very poor job in keeping the indigenous informed in South America. So we’re hoping to bring our indigenous consultation expertise down there to work with the nations more effectively. And key thing is they’re just education. The industry’s never really educated the indigenous and what the work’s being done.
And so , my. Path to success with our, all of our partnerships we’ve been successfully had in Canada has merely just been keeping the lines of communication open and working cooperatively with the indigenous nations.
Antoine Walter: Please don’t get shocked by the low level of details in what I will be asking, because I’m really starting to discover the fields. You mentioned Argentina, and you mentioned the respect of the indigenous people living on that land. During my research, I came across the case of the Atma Desert in Chile, where there is 40 to 60% of the water resources, which is used by that lithium and brine extraction to the detriment of the people who used to cultivate that lens.
So if I get your rights, what you’re bringing to the table here is that you’re bringing that consideration of the people living on that lens so that it is made in synergy and in a sustainable way. Right.
Christopher Brown: Yeah, exactly. Like part of the issue that is the misunderstanding that the water that we’re bringing to the surface is fresh. Because when you look at it and it comes to surface, it actually looks clear, looks like drinkable bottle water. It’s not, and there’s a definite misunderstanding that if you’re not informing and keeping the indigenous nations participating alongside you, technically understanding what you’re doing there’s a misconception that you are draining fresh water.
And because of this lack of communication in South America with those nations, it’s grown out of proportion. And unfortunately, misconception politics, things that people can grab on easily, tend to make headlines and a lot of that is just a lot of misinformation about the type of nature of the water we bring to surface.
A great example of work we did was in the oil sands. My reason I decided to partner with the indigenous nation is because the oil sand producers had very little transparency on what was going on. Birds were landing on these contaminated tailings ponds with oil and dying, and then First Nations were concerned that the oil sands were essentially taking their natural hunting ability away from them.
They were killing birds on these tailing ponds. And what we did is I came up with a concept of partnering with the First Nation and bringing them to the tailings ponds. And now the First Nation is present at the tailing ponds. They see the environmental work that’s being done to protect the tailing ponds and the understanding has grown exponentially.
Now. There’s very few, if any, complaints about bird landings and environmental issues around that, because the First Nations present, they see the challenges. You’re never gonna not have a landing, for example, in these contaminated ponds, but it the technology does its best to prevent it, but it was only bridging the understanding with the First Nations to see what was being done positively.
Were we able to come to a nice compromise and everyone is actually quite content on moving forward together. We lack that in Argentina. The companies that are previously there never brought the First Nations to the table or the indigenous peoples , to see the work, to participate with the work. And this is what the skillset set that Helios X wants to bring to the table.
Antoine Walter: Let me be uh, muggle here very intentionally. You mentioned technology, but an evaporation pond. It’s bringing something to the surface and waiting for it to evaporate. So what’s technology in that?
Christopher Brown: Well, there is a component of fresh water utilization. When you do bring this heavy high salt water if you want ironically enough to accelerate the evaporation, you have to reduce the salinity. And that helps by injecting some fresh water into the system. So from a perception standpoint, , that sounds negative especially in desert-like conditions in Argentina but from a carbon intensity perspective.
So when we look at all of our concerns about a CO2 equivalence that all of us from an environmental climate change perspective are concerned with, it’s actually a very low carbon intensity process when we go to direct lithium extraction, you have the counterbalance where Yes, we use far less water.
But we use a lot more electricity. And that electricity, especially in Alberta, tends to be methane based. And because it’s a carbon intense electricity, it’s carbon footprint, even though physically, visually it looks smaller, it’s a much larger car carbon footprint. And so it’s a balance that we have to strike.
Do, we have a surface evaporation pond, which is naturally evaporating just water into the atmosphere, which is not too bad but does utilize more fresh water, but low carbon intensity. Or do we use DLE systems, which can be highly carbon intensive, but have a smaller footprint. So it’s gonna be an interesting debate as DLE systems evolve.
Antoine Walter: I’d like to jump into the DLE in just a minute, but there’s one last thing which I need to understand before that, which is you have these three different regions where you’re active, so Argentina, neda and Alberta. What does that mean to be active? Does that mean that you own a piece of land?
Does that mean that you own a right to extract or a permit to extract or a concession? What does it mean?
Christopher Brown: that’s a very great question. , so in Argentina we’re in the exploration phase and until we’ve done enough exploration work to convince the government to commercialize, it remains in that type of label, meaning that we don’t have the right to. Essentially commercially sell lithium until we convert the exploration permit into the license , to develop it.
In Nevada, our permits allow us to continue the exploration in a similar application process. As you move forward to construction of a facility, we have to obtain appropriate permits with the Nevada state which some companies are going through right now. So we’re observing the process, seeing what the objections the state may have to their developments and making sure we incorporate that into our own program when we move forward.
And then Alberta, it’s the same thing. So you have an expiration permit, which you then convert over to a license once you’ve deemed it commercial and put forward your necessary permits and paperwork to justify that conversion. So all three of our assets are still exploration based. We have to do a decent amount of work to move them to commercial.
But at least we’re, we’re really understanding and learning about the reservoirs today.
Antoine Walter: What’s your time horizon to convert them?
Christopher Brown: It’s about anywhere from a two to five year process to collect the necessary data. It’s a government approval process, so you can only convert it upon obtaining enough commercial information to give them a line of sight that you can commercialize the asset. And then from there, the actual construction process can vary quite a bit.
It could be another two to five years in addition to that, to actually construct the necessary and do the detailed engineering accurately and drill the necessary wells to do the commerciality. So it can be a process that ranges from four years to over 10 years depending on the approvals, the environmental permits, and most importantly, working well with the indigenous nations in the region.
Antoine Walter: so I guess the fact that you need these. Several years to understand what exactly under the surface, prove what you have to dig into, and then get the time to drill and to finally, and extract explains why, if I do the math right, 70% comes from evaporation ponds. 30% comes from rock mining. That means that today, DLE is at 0%, but is in development a bit everywhere around the world, and will become one more way to extract lithium.
It won’t disrupt the existing or will it.
Christopher Brown: No it won’t. For example like the Silver Peak Group’s been on production and using evaporation ponds for decades. There is the method of which they’ve designed, their systems will not lend itself to an efficient DLE conversion process. And so DLE right now there’s probably close to 20 different types of DLE processes out there.
And with I love about it is it continuously evolves. And so there’s always the next group, like we work with the University Calgary group out of there, that is amazingly intelligent, has taken sort of the next evolutionary step for DLE processes. They’ve proven in a laboratory, but they we have to work to transition to that, to field demonstrations.
That’s where the next step comes because we can do a lot of things in laboratory. All 20 of these technologies , work amazingly well on laboratory basis. None of them have really proven themselves commercially out in the field with massive volumes of water yet. But you know, I love the enthusiasm behind it.
I love the intelligence behind it. And like I said, the DLE technology that was here three years ago has already been trumped by the DLE technology being released today. So there’s, continuously an evolution of DLE technology that becomes more and more efficient, which then lends itself to hopefully we can reduce our electricity consumption in order to reduce the carbon footprint of these DLE processes as well.
Antoine Walter: So you mentioned 20 different ways of doing DLE or 20 different processes. I tried to understand what’s the difference between those. what is it like, like 50 shades of gray or what differentiates those 20 different ones?
Christopher Brown: No it’s always the subtleties. It devils in the details as they say. So for example the methodol that you, which you do, the ion exchanged work can vary quite a bit. For example. And then there’s the aspect of the precipitation, one that you had talked is completely different process. And then there’s the absorbent technologies.
So those are the ones to keep it very simple for listeners, it’s like having a bowling ball, a spikes with a bunch of spikes on it, and as water passes, it grabs the lithium. Well, what’s happened for the next guy that figured out the bowling ball with the spikes is someone decided to drill 1 million holes through the bowling ball to increase the surface area substantially.
Well, that’s a nice step of evolution. So now you have a bowling ball with spikes with 1 million holes, and then the next guys come up with a better way , to put spikes within those million holes to capture even more lithium. And so those are the types of evolutions we see is people taking. The existing thought process, the chemistry is always the same.
It’s been known for 30 years of how to extract lithium from a chemistry equation. It’s just been the innovation and the excitement around the technologies people are bringing together on a nano level even to, to more excitingly capture this lithium in an environmentally friendly way. And those are the differences.
It’s just that little step change difference. And everyone’s adding their little contribution from a known point. And it’s we’ll see where everything ends and there’s gonna be winners and there’s gonna be losers. But we hope that we can bring some new technology to Alberta to extract our lithium here for sure.
Antoine Walter: your three assets, you have Argentina, which is about evaporation ponds. Why for Neda and Alberta did you go for D LE
Christopher Brown: Well, I wouldn’t say that we definitively decided , on DLE simply because evaporation ponds are the only proven technology. Now, from my oil sands experience, there’s actually new technologies on evaporation ponds that can accelerate evaporation rates in Alberta. So people, again, have the misconception that we’re cold.
You can’t use evaporation ponds when, ironically enough, just to give you some numbers that are meaningful in order to be a successful evaporation pond in Argentina. You have to evaporate upon about 1.8 meters to about 2.2 meters a year of evaporation rate. You do that, you’re starting down the path to get to a concentration which you can throw into your system and extract your lithium efficiently in Alberta, our evaporation rate on average today, even with our cold winters and our hot summers, runs about 0.8 to point to one meter of evaporation rate naturally.
Well, there’s new technologies that we use in the oil and gas industry today that can enhance that evaporation rate to get it up to the two meters. It’s just that no one’s taking those next step cuz everyone’s hesitant about evaporation ponds in general in Alberta just from the misconception of how, like the tailing ponds and how negative those have been for industry.
I wouldn’t discount evaporation but d l e and evaporation that maybe there’s a hybrid solution too. Like there’s that concept as well that if you preplanned DLE with evaporation ponds, maybe there’s a more effective lower carbon intensive methodology as well.
Antoine Walter: So like using d e as a CRC step, so concentration step, and then go into an preparation pond or something totally different.
Christopher Brown: Yeah, no, exactly. Like something to that effect. Whether one comes before the other we’d have to see keep in mind where our, the one reason I like d l e in Alberta is because we have exceptionally low concentrations of lithium, our lithium concentrations range from like 30 parts per million up to 120 parts per million.
To put that in perspective, Argentina is like 300 parts per million to 600 parts per million. So that’s well within what we call the economic range. And then Nevada is essentially between 150 to 300 parts per million type of range that you can have outcomes in Nevada. And so Alberta’s really on the low end of the scale, so we have to be particularly innovative how we’re gonna unlock the Alberta opportunity.
And so our goal here is to get it up to. At least 25 to 35,000 parts per million through these types of processes. Because then your friends at Saltworks can come to the table, pull their design off the shelf, and anything from that point on is just literally off the shelf. Technology, whether it’s saltworks or any other group once you get it up to that level is always the goal.
It’s just trying to get that low concentration to a point where we can feed it to the Saltworks of the world to take it to the refined lithium processes.
Antoine Walter: You mentioned how you are teaming up with the University of Calgary. What’s the shape of that partnership? Does it mean that you have some PhD students which are working in your offices, or is it a more formal partnership or what’s the way to work with that scene?
Christopher Brown: Oh it’s just a friendly partnership PhD professor that is expert originally at hydrocarbon extractions is where they work towards how to apply that technology to lithium. And this is again, the evolution of bridging the gaps between oil and gas and lithium extraction.
And the nature right now is just support. So what we do is we try and to source lithium samples for them, that we want to do the analysis on their lab, so we get them real world samples to try and determine what hiccups could be and their type of technology extraction, as well as we bridge the gaps within industry.
We’re fairly well known in the oil and gas industry, and so our goal is to try and translate this technology into the energy industry as best as possible, and we help facilitate that for them as well. And so that jointly we can empower them with access to real life brines, and they do the analysis and hopefully they empower us with new technologies that the industry can benefit from, not just us.
The goal at this stage is we’re so early in this industry, we all have to work together as partners. Being competitive works to no one’s advantage right now.
Antoine Walter: you mentioned partners, if I’m right, you’re working with Lius Lilac and Core Separation. So what is the role of each of the parties in that collaboration?
Christopher Brown: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s the idea of just keeping the concepts open and having information flow. Lilac Solutions out of California. Really well-funded entity. Private backed by Bill Gates. MIT’s involved with that technology evolution. They’re active around the world looking for lithium plays to apply their technology to.
They work in the above, 200 to 400 milligram per liter range. That’s their window of success for their application of their technologies. Koch has developed various types of lithium and evolved their lithium separation technologies. But again, they fall in, that 200 to 400 but have real on the ground experience in the US trying to commercialize or attempting to commercialize their technologies in the us.
Lilac has actually successfully partnered. In Argentina with a field operation that has proven very positive to date. So Lilac sort of has proven itself in Argentina so far. Koch has proven itself in US so far, and Litus up in Canada is in the process of a lower concentration. their window is sub 100 milligrams, which falls into those reservoirs there.
So each one has its specialty for the reservoir types, and that’s what we’re looking for is not necessarily one solution to fit all. What’s the best solution for the reservoirs we’re pursuing?
Antoine Walter: For me to get that construct of who does what. Let me just take you 10 years in the future, like your expiration is done, you’ve drilled, you’ve started operating, you’re producing in that construct. So 10 years in the future. Are you like the mother company with everything in house or is it like a joint venture on each of these sites where these technology companies have their own word?
Or how is it gonna be built?
Christopher Brown: Yeah. Well, yeah, 10 years out, I’d love to be vertically integrated. So if we have a solution that works best in a basin, I’d like that to be in-house as best as possible, allows us to control our destiny, allows us to control the design aspects and more importantly, operations in the field need to be dynamic.
We need to have hands-on and just having lots of field experience things go wrong and having that in-house technology expertise allows us to efficiently restore or get production back in an efficient period of time. So I’m a big fan of vertically integrating, but at the same side I would never house or keep that to ourselves.
Our goal would be to partner with other lithium opportunity exploration guys and development people that if we had that technology in house, I want to make sure it’s available to them economically as well, because it benefits everybody to have a healthy lithium extraction and critical minerals entity to essentially isolate and not share the technology with others.
Doesn’t work well for in the industry in general. And plus then it’d be harder to find a qualified employees. You wanna encourage more people to transition and the key thing is to make sure there’s employees and enough employees in industry that we can properly add to the benefit and transition people from oil and gas into the critical minerals as efficiently as possible.
Antoine Walter: in terms of hr, that’s the play at work. It’s converging the oil and gas specialists into those more sustainable fields.
Christopher Brown: Exactly. Exactly. They already have the skillset. It’s one of those things that. They just don’t know what they don’t know type of situation that they have the skillset that is perfectly applicable. They just don’t know that they’re very valuable for lithium extraction. And it’s just teaching them the applications.
And once a lot of people realize that actually my geology background directly applies, my engineering background directly applies my geophysical background directly applies. It checks so many boxes for transitioning to critical elements extraction. It’s just getting the word out there and really expanding and opening up people’s minds in terms of the new emerging industry.
Antoine Walter: So I’ve taken you 10 years in the future. What’s your vision today of these 10 years in the future? I hear that you’d like to be vertically integrated, but do you have a certain level of certainty today about how you’re going to build that, or are you in a phase where actually everything’s possible?
Christopher Brown: Well, as you’ve heard from the various entities , that we house under our Helios corporation, we’re a big believer of everything’s possible. So we’re, so, like I said, un under us, we have emerging geo, geothermal technologies. We’re working on for sustained greenhouse development for remote communities.
We have a fiber optics network company. We’re working on developing. We have our lithium extraction technologies. We’re evolving. I’m a big believer of investing widely. And to try and just capture as much as possible because you don’t know which one is gonna be sort of the winner at the end of the day, and you just want to keep a diversified portfolio of opportunities.
And when it comes to the lithium extraction, that’s exactly our perspective. We’re open-minded, whether it’s absorption technologies, ion exchange technology, precipitation technologies with some type of cal enhanced catalyst to do that, whatever one makes sense, but is also. As low carbon intensity as possible is also very important because you could have the best direct lithium extraction technology.
But unfortunately, when you go to sell your lithium, one of the criteria that a lot of these guys haven’t factored into their analysis yet is the purchasers of that lithium want to know what was the carbon intensity? How many tons of CO2 did it take per ton of lithium for you to make this? And they’re gonna go down their list and they’re gonna rank their purchases and they’ll pay a premium for those that are low intensity.
And you may be punished for being too carbon intensive. So DLE , what we have to really watch if you’re looking 10 years in the future, is who’s the most carbon intense entity? And who has taken the extra time to reduce that will be the ones you wanna partner with.
Antoine Walter: We mentioned quite generally lithium since the beginning of this conversation, but what is it exactly that you aim to produce in term of type of lithium or grade of lithium?
Christopher Brown: Well this could be a conversation onto itself cause this is a very big topic. So the two primary products that are off the shelf today, commercial for yielding. Or is either lithium carbonate or lithium chloride via various mechanisms. Now, what is the most efficient for transportation is actually lithium carbonate.
Lithium chloride carries a certain amount of issues if you’re gonna be transporting and packaging that you have to be more environmentally sensitive and watch out for employee safety is a big concern with lithium chloride. Now, one thing I’d love to propose and I wish more would give consideration to, with these aspirations of the US to create these battery facilities.
So right now all this product is essentially heading over to China for further refinement to produce into your battery. What we need to do is do like a lithium concentrate facility. And what that means is rather than refining it to a certain point in the fields, which almost no junior company can affordably do today, cuz you’re talking about 800 million plus a capital requirement to get to these levels, why don’t we take a step back and create refineries that can accept lower concentration lithiums and then we can make all these junior opportunities more economic because they only have to refine it, evaporate it a bit, get it up to 25,000 parts per million and ship off the fluid in tankers.
And then you build multiple concentrate facilities, which will take that concentration, use the whatever saltworks technology just because you mentioned them earlier and take it to a refining level themselves. So I think the investment in refining locally that can take lower concentrations would be a brilliant way to bridge the gap to make all the junior guys.
Remain interested in exploration and allow them a path to commercialization.
Antoine Walter: You mentioned all these junior guys and all that striving ecosystem in North America, actually on both sides of the border between the US and Canada. From my research, which probably didn’t find everybody, I identified about 40, 45 companies in North America alone. Which are acting on various parts of that extraction, but all linked to that extraction.
So one way to look at it is to think it’s like this era pre Blu-ray where you had all the alternatives and one day the Blu-ray came up and killed all the others because it just happened to be better. The other is exactly what you explained to say, there’s probably an economy of scale if you can find a way to ize the resources and then have a full vertical in North America, which can deal with all the stages.
So how do you team up with the other members of that ecosystem?
Christopher Brown: I’ve personally reached out to a number of the junior guys just to stay in contact keep an understanding of their evolution of what they’re doing, what contacts they’re making. But it is a bit of a process. The government does need to provide essentially an incentive to construct refineries.
And this has been an issue, ironically enough, in Canada, many decades ago could have had the chance to be a large refiner of, in our energy system for oil and gas, for example. At the time they, they chose not to, and now to our detriment, Canada is now at the will of the US refinery.
Like 50% of our crude has no functional use until it gets to refinery. So it has to be piped through the us big risk on piping, long distances, pipeline breaks and things like that. Provide environmental risk. Versus we could have built many refineries, much closer to home, saved ourselves both the transportation cost, the environmental risk, cost, and also been , an active contributor to the world economy.
Lithium’s the same way. We have a decision point coming up where we have all these junior producers who are looking for exploration opportunities for lithium extraction. The government needs to provide that window to say, we’ll support it by allowing or providing some type of tax incentives for US companies to come to Canada.
Construct intermediate refinery processes so that the junior producers can flourish. It’ll encourage more investment in exploration. Cause right now, if you’re a junior producer, you have to actually do your budgets as if you’re gonna take it to full commercialization. Well, a 15 million market cap company in no way can get line of sight on 800 million of capital today.
I can put it down in a preliminary economic assessment report. But it’s almost worthless because you don’t have that means to export. You don’t have the means of the market. And like I said, a big unknown is whether or not your DLE technology, let’s say, would even meet the classification of carbon intensity that will allow you to export your lithium.
So there’s lots of risks involved at this stage if we don’t find that intermediate bridge to be successful.
Antoine Walter: That entire market is obviously driven today by the battery revolution, or the ev revolution, depending on how we want to look at it, which is driving the costs up. But to which extent can those costs be driven up? I mean, again, according to my very short research the price was multiplied by five last year, but there’s probably a cap.
And at some point the new capacities of production will at least stop the increase. it something you have to take in consideration when you’re dimensioning your assets and looking at what is gonna be breakeven and sustainable and then profitable?
Christopher Brown: Yeah, that, that’s something that we actively monitor. To give you some research background for example, China in general is a ballpark is about 10 years ahead of North America on all this thought process of critical minerals. To put it in perspective, like China realizes that if it wants to move to electric vehicle, which it’ll be the largest electric vehicle hub in the world it needed to secure critical minerals early on.
So a good example is like cobalt’s, a key part of the battery. Components. So you have lithium, cobalt, nickel as some of your key elements you need as part of the critical elements for your battery. Well, China, just to give you a perspective, one of the key cobalt places in the world is the Congo. China’s imports from Congo in 1990s was about 1.9 million with an M.
Today it is now 9 billion with a B. They recognized early on to source the critical elements they need for an electric future, that they need to securitize the key source of critical elements. Now the situation is no one else can get access to that market. They’re the largest imported exporter of goods from Congo.
They control that economy, have it well in hand, and now indefinitely will have that ability for themselves to meet their ev demand. Now what’s happened is the US and Canada are now gonna fight the good fight and they’re gonna have to pay more for the product, which is gonna lend itself to challenges with, like you said, on costs just across the board and may cost out a number of potential consumers.
So the potential forecast for EVs in California and the US may not come to fruition honestly. There’s the components of the car itself, which will be likely more expensive. But the second component is the electrical grid systems aren’t designed for that. There’s no way, for example, , in Alberta that we can put in, for example, like a new wind farm if we want to be green on the eastern side of Alberta, because our electrical system in no way can handle any type of uncertainty, variable electricity input anymore.
So we’re hamstrung by not just the EV side, but the distribution system is so archaic that it can no way support an accelerated ev program that is currently being proposed for 2035 from both Canada, us. It always sounds good from politicians, but when you actually do the math, it doesn’t actually work out at all.
Antoine Walter: But would that influence the price of lithium?
Christopher Brown: That will increase the price of lithium. It’s good for obviously the base exporter like ourselves hopefully , over the next 10 years. It just concerning from an environmental standpoint that we’re not necessarily gonna achieve our green goals , as efficiently as we could.
And this is where, like I said, if the government starts to realize that vertically integrating within your own region of the resource can lend itself to that advantage, and that’s what China has demonstrated. We need to actually take a not outta their book from securitizing our own resources to be able to actually refine our own resources.
We can’t be dependent on China for the next 10, 20 years of refining our batteries any further. That’s a big political risk.
Antoine Walter: Talking of this energy question, resources and also a field you’re involved in. If I’m right, you’re also active in geothermal extraction. It sounds , like the good counterpart to any kind of lithium extraction, because if already you’re taking that water, which is more or less rich a lithium, if it has some geothermal value, then you can double up with an energy play.
that your idea , to find this synergistic move between the two, or is it just a coincidence?
Christopher Brown: No, it was by design. So we’re very geothermally focused as well, and this lends itself to the tailing or essentially the evaporation pod design in Alberta. We can use natural geothermal heat to keep the temperature of the evaporation ponds higher to accelerate evaporation rates in Alberta on an exceptionally low carbon basis, because then I don’t need the electricity.
I have my natural heat from the earth providing natural heat to a pond, providing fresh water to our atmosphere while we extract the lithium. It’s actually a very nice story once people get their minds around that the evaporation ponds are not like contaminated tailings ponds. And that unfortunately, people tend to relate those to is the one and the same.
So our evaporation ponds we could use with the geothermal technology would also keep the carbon footprint amazingly low. The carbon intensity would be very low on that type of process. So I’m a very pro moving along our geothermal technology in parallel with the lithium extraction. I think , they go hand in hand for sure.
Antoine Walter: So it’s not about being exothermic or producing energy, it’s about reducing the carbon intensity and optimizing the lithium extraction process.
Christopher Brown: Yes.
Antoine Walter: It sounds like a great synergy and a cool opportunity. If I’m playing the dead advocates here, it’s like adding uncertainty on the uncertainty, so it’s like doubling up the technological risk. How can you reassure me that’s a good idea.
Christopher Brown: Well, the good news is geothermal technology has made decades of proven success. And so, you can go to a number of countries, Iceland, Sweden, in Norway and go into , their systems and there’s a lot of geothermally positive, construction projects, residential, commercial projects.
So what’s nice is geothermal gradients and understanding of geothermal technologies, and I’ll convert that to surface heat. Very much proven technology. And then evaporation ponds, obviously very much proven technology with the work that’s been done with 70% of your lithium currently being extracted via that means we’ve had 50 years of evaporation ponds that have proven themselves as well.
Where that next step is actually the risk for us is DLE, how they integrate this DLE system without using so much electricity. This is the largest issue we have. It goes to the point of, for example, I can produce as much hydrogen as you want. If you give me infinite amount of electricity and a bottle of water off to the races, I go, is that the most efficient way when my electricity is produced by methane?
Am I creating hydrogen, but creating a larger carbon intensity issue by just utilizing high intensity electricity that’s based on methane, that’s the balance balancer we were trying to strike with the direct lithium extraction technologies.
Antoine Walter: You’ve spoken in very positive terms about these general companies and this striving ecosystem, which is aiming , to develop the third path of the I’ve also heard a different rap sometimes when discussing with some of these actors in this field who told me that they are the alleged companies and they are the ones which sound bits more like a really venture investment.
It might be a big thing or it might be a major failure. So is it a risky field? I’m not, investment podcast at all. I’m just trying to understand if there are various shades of risk in that field.
Christopher Brown: Oh yes. Huge. So there is, from a risk perspective it’s funny because we’ve gone through some of the data of the DLE processes the ones we’ve mentioned, plus the number ones we haven’t mentioned ironically enough a blanket statement, they all work. So there’s no one out there , that’s claiming to have DLE that definitively doesn’t work.
They all work on a laboratory basis to a certain extent. They all do various degrees of success with recovery. So it’s not a matter of are they the misleading, they’re not misleading. They all do work to certain levels. The challenge that we have is that transition to field operations.
It’s one thing when I’m running a cup full of or a bucket full of water in my lab and I extract lithium and I’m all celebratory that it took 95% of lithium out. Great. The challenge is when I’m running 100,000 barrels of fluid a day past the same processes, that’s much, much more complex.
And so this is where the big technology gap we have today is that we have not proven any capability to essentially scale up all these lab opportunities. So all the lab ones work no problem. It’s just scale scaling is where your investment risk is.
Antoine Walter: It’s actually an analogy that Wim Audenaert made on that microphone a while ago where he explains that adult clothing is not baby clothing made larger. It’s there’s a difference when you’re scaling up that those processes in terms of. Scaling up. Will you explain in the beginning how you are looking at what’s exactly the potential of the assets you’re in?
At some point you will be drilling, you’re looking at those DLE technologies. Will they go in steps or do you directly go for the full scale?
Christopher Brown: If they’ll be in steps. I’m an engineer by background and I would never knowingly take a silly risk that I’m gonna go from a lab to like a 500,000 barrel a day water production facility. That’s a very naive step to take just in life. That’s guaranteed failure for anyone claims they’re going to do that for sure.
So the logical steps are you have your laboratory set up and then your next scale should just be one Well, One well is easy to do. One well is just a field application. You may not get the economics because you don’t have the volume throughput, but you’ll get the understanding of the operation and extraction.
So you literally just move up to a one. Well, whether your one well produces 2000 barrels a day of water, or 10,000 barrels a day of water, that should technically be your next scale. And then from the one, well we go to a battery system to see what was wrong with the one? Well, what prevented me from being commercial with the one well is what you ask yourself and then is it a volume issue or is it a technology issue?
And then you determine, then you scale up from that point. So then I go to what’s called a battery level, where I’ll now look at, take my two to 10,000 umbrella day concept, and then I move it up to 50. And then if I can achieve successful commercial success at 50, then I have a much higher degree of certainty that I can either.
Copy my 50, for example, with that facility four times and have a 200,000 barrels a day. Or do I gross up to a 200,000 barrel a day facility that allows my optionality for commerciality. So there are many steps you have to take, and I would never invest in the company that ever makes a claim that we were successful in the lab at, 50 barrels a day or 10 barrels a day.
Now I’m gonna build like a, a 500,000 barrel a day facility. I’d wait for the promote on the stock and then sell all of my stock because there’s a high probability of failure on that. That outcome.
Antoine Walter: Nice bump and dump
Christopher Brown: Exactly. That those are design, pump, and dumps, as we call it. The old Vancouver promotes what those used to be nicknamed as.
Antoine Walter: In terms of investment, right now, that sector is getting quite a lot of investment. You mentioned these steps towards profitability. What’s the horizon at which those companies including yours, in that application of these extraction of lithium, when do you expect to be profitable?
Christopher Brown: Yeah that’s a very big question again though that cuz as many avenues you can go down for that analysis, but just as a good rule of thumb you start the timeline for exploration can be like a couple of years to four years, for example. So if we factor in four years just to determine the resource size and then from that point I start engaging engineering for more detailed engineering for pilot facility.
That’s another two years, you’re up to six years. And then after my pilot facility to construct into a detailed engineering for the next facility is another at least two years. And so you’re up to eight years just to get up to my decision point. Do I have something I can scale or not scale? So you’re eight years out to reach a commercial decision.
And then from there, it’s a determination of whether I’m not g whether I make multiple copies of that level or if I make one large facility. So a large facility could take up to three to four years, depending on the components. If you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, some of those components could have a year plus lead time to deliver.
And especially the drilling program, some of, if you do the math on some of the theoretical drilling programs that need to occur, these companies on lithium brine and their PAs have to drill like hundreds of wells to achieve their production levels. Well, I’d be surprised if you can find rigs, the oil and gas industry still exists and now you’re gonna compete with a couple hundred wells in the field.
So you’re gonna be delayed for years for that. So eight years to just be commercial decision point if you’re gonna be big, or if you’re gonna be multiples of a small unit. And then it could be another, two to five years post that. So you’re a decade out from definitive commercial production.
If we’re starting today,
Antoine Walter: And to place you on that timeline. If I’m right, you intend to start drilling this year, is that right?
Christopher Brown: Yeah, if we can our, again, hurdle to success is obtain the capital for the programs. So we just were listed last year. We self financed ourselves with a couple million dollars seed. We haven’t done an offering publicly yet but we need to look towards obtaining the capital for a program to start drilling.
So that’s our goal for 2023 is to start putting some wells. I think we have a very good idea of what we wanna do. We just need to now raise the necessary capital , to achieve our goals.
Antoine Walter: So if people listening to that who like to invest in your company, how can they do that?
Christopher Brown: Well, they’re always welcome to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. So that’s i n ffo, H e l iOS X ca and we’d happy to have further discussions with them if they’re interested.
Antoine Walter: So I’ll put the link in the show notes and which type of investors, which type of profiles would be the right partners for you?
Christopher Brown: Well, I’m very much in favor of those that are like the aspect of critical mineral investments with a positive environmental attitude. The goal here is just not to be singular on a one well outcome, but to work collaboratively with industry, evolve all together the technologies for all of us to be successful and to continue the collaboration with like the universities, other corporations and those , that appreciate the work we do with First Nations and to work in trying to empower First Nations with opportunities for both employment as well as empower them with new technology understandings that can help enhance their economic outcomes as well.
So that’s the nature of the ideal profile, because that shares the same philosophies we do.
Antoine Walter: think that answer gives a strong hint for the last question I have for you in that deep dive, which is what’s your metric for impact? What will tell you in, let’s say, 10 years that you had a positive impact?
Christopher Brown: Well, yeah, a couple of metrics, obviously success with the regional nations that’s easy to see when you see positive economic development, and we work with First Nations on that basis, and you visually see the benefits to the nation by reinvestments to the nation for enhancing their wellbeing.
Low carbon intensities obviously a key parameter for us, so if we’re successful, we’ll be able to bring to the market lithium production at the lowest carbon intensity possible. And that’s definitely one of our goals , it’s useless to , bring on new critical minerals if we’re costing the environment more than the benefit of the lithium battery.
For EVs, it’s our contrary to the whole goal of what we’re all trying to achieve.
Antoine Walter: Well, Christopher, it’s been an incredible exploration with you of that quite fascinating field. I could keep that going for a while, but have to be conscious of your time at some point. So if that’s right with you, I propose you to switch to the rapid, fair questions.
Christopher Brown: Oh, sure.
Rapid Fire Questions
Christopher Brown: So these are quick question and answers, right?
Antoine Walter: Exactly. I’m trying to keep the question short. You can try to keep the answers short. I’m never cutting the microphone and usually I’m the one doing segues, so, so don’t worry.
My first question is, what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on and why?
Christopher Brown: The most exciting project is the work with the University of Calgary to try and bring to fruition the direct lithium extraction technologies at a very low concentration.
Antoine Walter: Can you name one thing that you’ve learned the hard way?
Christopher Brown: Well, not all First Nations are the same we know this, but working with the Argentine nations is just a learning process and everyone has their particular cultural nuances and it’s, I just appreciate learning the new cultural approach and trying to reapply it in the future to, to be more sensitive to other nations needs and cultural outcomes.
Antoine Walter: Is there something you’re doing today in your job that you will not be doing in 10 years?
Christopher Brown: Well, I hope to pass on a lot more of the math to the next generation, so, recruit some younger engineers to sit down and crunch the numbers more effectively and efficiently. I’d love to be able to pass on the technology, know-how to the next generation so that they can carry the torch, so to speak.
Antoine Walter: today a lot of the maths is still with you.
Christopher Brown: It is, unfortunately, I have to sit down and spend a lot of time doing all the technology analysis.
Antoine Walter: What is the trend to watch out for in the water sector?
Christopher Brown: I think the ability to open up the understanding of the nature of the types of waters and passing on that understanding to the particular indigenous groups that are in close proximity to those waters. I think there is definitely a lack of understanding of the different types and what’s good water and what’s bad water.
All of it is usually deemed good and that tends to carry on issues when we are dealing with environmental approvals and that, and so I think it’s just, we really need to work on education on that front.
Antoine Walter: And last question, would you have someone to recommend me that I should definitely invite as soon as possible on that microphone?
Christopher Brown: Well, it would be a dream, but I always like Christine Lagar, she’s an amazing, talented woman that carries a lot of strength globally. She has an amazing perspective on balancing the environment and economics. I know that would be the ideal dream. And if she were to be on there, I’d love to be on there with her for questions and answers, because I think she’s a brilliant woman with amazing insight, balancing both the economic needs of the globe, but also incorporating realistic climate achievements.
And so she’s just a wonderful leader around the world. So that would be the dream. Ask for the program.
Antoine Walter: Well, I’ll give it a shot, but beyond playing the argument of let’s have a French guy with a French woman, I’m not sure I have much more to offer, but I’ll try it. Christopher, it’s been awesome to have you on the show. If people want to follow up with you beyond the email you already shared, is there another place where they can reach out to you?
Christopher Brown: Our email is the best. I am on LinkedIn as well, and so more than happy to add links and have conversations on LinkedIn. So if they want to take , that social media platform, more than happy to continue the conversations.
Antoine Walter: Well, I’ll put the links as well in the show notes. Thanks a lot for having been my guide in that inspiration and I wish , to see if in 10 years that vertically integrated Helio X is exactly what you described and we dreamed a bit together today. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be an amazing journey and I’ll be very happy to follow that. Thanks a lot.
Christopher Brown: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for your time and really enjoyed the questions.