Lithium and nanotech: The story of innovator Amanda Hall

Rating: High school and post-secondary

Summary: Markham interviews Amanda Hall, CEO of Summit Nanotech, a Canadian cleantech startup that has developed membrane nanotech technology to economically remove lithium from briny water. After founding the company three years ago, she landed her first big customer in Chile and has emerged as a rising star in the cleantech sector.

Related links:

  1. AB cleantech entrepreneur Amanda Hall creates nanotube membrane to filter lithium from saltwater
  2. Want a lithium industry in Alberta? Legal, regulatory issues must be fixed first

This interview has been lightly edited.

Markham Hislop:  There are any number of fascinating people in the energy industry that I’ve interviewed over the years. And one of them that we’re going to interview today is Amanda Hall. She is the CEO of Summit Nanotech, a cleantech firm that’s centred in Calgary, Alberta.

Now you have a very interesting company, but even more interesting background. You went to the University of Toronto, you got one degree, you came out west to Calgary, you then raised a family. And while you were doing that, you went back to school and got another degree. And then you went into the oil and gas and mining industries and had a successful career before leaving it to form Summit Nanotech.

Tell us that story – I find that very interesting.

Amanda Hall:  It is an interesting story. Oddly, my father often says that this was the story of how not to do growing up, because I did have kids in the middle of my academic career. I started off at the University of Toronto, took four years of biology, but had a minor in physics. And what happened at the end of four years of biology is I decided I didn’t like biology and I loved physics. And so I got the degrees – I had a minor in physics and a minor in English as well as a major in biology.

So I got those degrees and left and moved out to Calgary. There weren’t any jobs in Toronto at the time. So I was just chasing the job, landed in Calgary, learned about the oil and gas sector, and really had my first introduction to geophysics, which is the application of physics to understanding earth essentially.

But at that point, I started having kids, got married. I did it backwards in a way. But for me it worked really well because having my kids very young – I was 23 when I had my first baby – I would bring my kids to school with me. One day, one of them had pink eye and I dragged them into a lecture at the university and the professor stopped the lecture and asked, “Is that a baby back there?”

So it was really fascinating, but I got the degree and then I launched my career into environmental geophysics – was my first job. And then from there I moved into potash mining and then from there I moved into oil and gas.

Markham Hislop:  Now you were working for one of the largest oil and gas companies CNRL when I met you in 2018. And you told me stories about how you would bring new ideas – and big companies just aren’t great at welcoming new ideas all the time – and that’s kind of what led you to start Summit Nanotech. Have I got that correct?

Amanda Hall:  Absolutely. Yeah. So some companies promote intrapreneurship, so kind of growth of innovative culture inside a company rather than outside of the company. But it’s challenging to do that when you have a behemoth company, like a CNRL. They’re big and they really don’t have the resources or the capacity to develop the technology.

It really does belong, in their mind, in a university or something along those lines. So ideas that came up at CNRL were just kind of like, “it’s not really our place to develop that.” So, ultimately I couldn’t turn my brain off and so I ended up just leaving the company, starting my own startup and started developing my own technology.

Markham Hislop:  Well, let’s talk about that technology. It’s a nanotech membrane that filters out lithium from fluids. Give us a little background on how you got started and what the technology actually does.

Amanda Hall:  Sure, actually this is where my biology roots come back into play because I modelled the process after the human kidney. When I first started out, luckily I won the Women in CleanTech Challenge finalist position, which gave me access to a government lab. So we got to move into the NRCAN energy research facility in Devon, Alberta. And we started making membranes and I’d never done anything like this before so I hired a chemical engineer with a master’s in nanotechnology, and I relied on the researchers to help me get started taking this concept really of, of filtering and concentrating lithium and turning it into a scalable industrial product. Tons of challenges along the way, and not the least of which was COVID-19, which shut the doors of the lab and booted us out.

So at that point, we started our own lab in Bearspaw, just outside of Calgary. And we kept working on the membrane concept, but we also incorporated a preliminary step to put in before the membrane, which is a sorbent. And so the sorbent is lithium selective, and it’s like a sponge that sucks lithium out of brine water. So that is the heavy lifter in our process, the sorbent, but the membrane still exists to do the filtration as a second step. So it’s interesting how technology has evolved. It’s a seven-step process and those first two steps are really the unique physics behind extracting lithium from brine water.

Markham Hislop:  Now, you and I have chatted in the past about how this technology is not necessarily applicable to produced water that comes from oil and gas wells in the industry. But does work really well in Chile, for instance, where you’ve done some of your initial work. Can you tell us about that?

Amanda Hall:  Yeah, so, unfortunately, Alberta’s brine has a low concentration of lithium and so the cost to get it out is just too high. So it’s not a physics problem. We can get it out, but it’s going to cost more to get it out than it is to sell the lithium to the market. So as lithium prices come up and as our technology becomes more efficient, more effective, and we can lower our costs as those two things happen, someday – it’s like fracking, right? Someday it can be an economic endeavour to get lithium out of Alberta brine. Um, but not today, it’s just too expensive today. So, but in Chile concentrations are 10 times higher and there are no hydrocarbons mixed in with the brine. So much, much easier to take a raw product into our system, extract the lithium responsibly, dispose of the waste and not have to worry about dealing with messy oil and gas getting mixed up in the process.

Markham Hislop:  So where is your company headed? I was on your site today and was very impressed with your team. You have Ph.D. chemists and a lot of very smart people around your board table. Are you going to grow the company? Have you got a major growth in, in mind and where are you going to get the talent?

Amanda Hall:  We’re growing quickly. I predict we’ll double in size in the next year, which means we’re going from 10 people to 20 people. So we’re still small, but we have a fantastic advisory board, lithium industry experts on the board as well as really bright cleantech business people who are able to help guide the strategy behind my decision-making in the cleantech sector. It’s like taking all of the experience from oil and gas and then morphing it into a cleantech endeavour that is it’s different, but it’s the same.

Resource extraction is resource extraction. You got to do it responsibly and doing it sustainably is like the new business model. Without sustainability in your business model. you’re not going to succeed anymore. So you need to make sure that’s in there too. So the resource base I’m drawing from in terms of employees and growing my company, they are oil and gas experts, resource extraction experts, who can take that knowledge and just pivot it into a new sector and then use all that skill and knowledge to, to make lithium extraction better.

Markham Hislop:  That fascinating. And give us just a brief overview of where you think the company is going to go in the next five or 10 years.

Amanda Hall:  Oh, I’ve got a billion-dollar revenue plan in mind. It’s not that challenging to achieve either. So in my sales forecast with hardware-as-a-service business model, it’s kind of an oil and gas business model where I show up on the lithium miners site with my equipment and I put it down and we attach it to a well, and it starts extracting lithium. So it’s above-ground surface technology, but it’s hardware as a service. So I own and operate and maintain that technology and the customer pays me an operating fee and that’s it. So the operating budget from the lithium mining company gets transferred to me. I use it to pay back the capital I spent getting the technology to the field and then with a five-year contract or a 10-year contract or a 20-year contract, whatever it is they’re willing to provide to us, which is about the life cycle of a lithium basin is about 20, 20 to 25 years.

So as long as my hardware stays onsite maintained, always upgraded, always cutting edge technology. This is the beautiful thing about modular technology is I can continuously remain at the leading edge of innovation by swapping out pieces of the modules and never have the technology go obsolete. So that helps the miner and it helps us stay on the cutting edge and keep our costs always getting driven down lower and our technology performance always being optimized.

So anyway, with six customers, I will be making a billion dollars a year in revenue within the next five years. And so they call us a unicorn, a unicorn status. But that’s the plan. And it’s very achievable with plan I have in place today with the strategy I have in place today.

Markham Hislop:  Well, and it’s particularly impressive because with lithium, being the main component of batteries these days and the rapid growth we’re going to see in battery usage in electric vehicles and utility storage and so on, you’re perfectly placed to provide that raw material. And so that’s terrific and sounds very exciting for the company.

Final question and I’m also very impressed with the way that you’ve emerged as kind of a spokesperson for the cleantech industry. Every time I go on LinkedIn, Amanda Hall’s appearing in another conference or presentation. What’s that been like for you?

Amanda Hall: It’s humbling really. Like I taught myself nanotechnology and I learned about the lithium marketplace on my living room couch. You know, I’m not an expert in this field yet I’m being deemed as an expert in this field because I’m so passionate about it and I jumped in with both feet.

So essentially I let go of the rope of oil and gas and said, I’m done with you and landed in the lithium space and just devoured the knowledge. I was a sponge. I sponged it all up. I used a lot of my knowledge and my decision-making abilities from oil and gas to put a plan in place for lithium. That was unlike what my competition is doing. And so because of that, I was really quick to differentiate and stand out.

And then of course having environmental priorities in my technology development and making sure that we comply with regulation and what the government want and what the people want in the future. We’re humans and the humanity behind the growth of an electric vehicle sector and the use of lithium-ion batteries and renewable energy storage and e-mobility.

That’s a human driver. The banks aren’t driving it, it’s not institutions driving it, it’s the people driving it. And so there’s something really beautiful about that. And being able to honour that, honour our humanity in the sense that we need to do sustainable mining. We need to create the mine of the future.

And I’m so passionate about this and so excited about it and so confident that we can get there that I think I just naturally gravitated to be a spokesperson for clean tech and mining coming together. And then because I’m a woman, I just get that women in cleantech kind of role thrust upon me. So it is what it is. I’m a female, I’m a cleantech CEO. And I love, I love what my company is doing. My team is fantastic. We’ve got the right motivation and the right vision and the right values, driving all of our decision-making

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