Summit Nanotech is developing technology to tackle the world's most daunting energy and environmental challenges. And Amanda has recently won the Women in Cleantech Challenge funded by NRCan. Join us as we catch up with Amanda and get her insights on clean technology.
Amanda Hall is a professional geophysicist and the CEO/Founder of Summit Nanotech, a company that developed direct lithium extraction technology for the growing lithium-ion battery sector. Amanda felt the market pull away from oil & gas and towards a clean energy, electromobility future and so she followed her gut into the clean tech industry.
She is a graduate from University of Toronto (Trinity College) with a BSc Biology major, Physics minor, English minor and from University of Calgary with a BSc Geophysics. She is on the Advisory Board for Canadian Energy & Climate Nexus (CECN), is a mentor for Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists (CSEG) and is on the Board of Directors for Calgary Opera. Amanda is identified by the Canadian government as a leading female innovator and is the winner of the National Women in Cleantech challenge. She is a mother to three beautiful daughters, endorses diversity, equality and inclusion and loves getting lost in the mountains.
Shift by Alberta Innovates focuses on the people, businesses and organizations that are contributing to Alberta's strong tech ecosystem.
Katie Dean: Today on Shift we interview Amanda Hall with Summit Nanotech. Summit Nanotech is developing technology to tackle the world's most daunting energy and environmental challenges. And Amanda has recently won the Women in Cleantech Challenge funded by NRCan. Join us as we catch up with Amanda and get her insights on clean technology.
Jon: Amanda Hall, congratulations on being the $1 million grand prize winner of the Women in Cleantech Challenge. The Women in Cleantech Challenge was funded by NRC, NRCan rather to address the lack of representation in the sector where only 16% of SMEs are owned by women. What is winning that Women in Cleantech Challenge mean for you?
Amanda Hall: Oh, it came with the title of leading female innovator. And so I use that like a sword out in the international world because I say I represent Canada as a leading female innovator. And so for me, it's a brand that I get to represent. And so I have the Canadian government support. And then when I go out and talk to potential customers or investors internationally, it gets their attention because I usually start my emails with that label, "Hi, I'm Amanda leading female innovator in Canada." So it's pretty remarkable and I always get responses always. So it came with a lot of clout.
Katie Dean: Absolutely. And what kind of things do you do to support women in clean-tech in particular?
Amanda Hall: So I'm a mentor to a lot of different female CEOs. I'm also a mentor at the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, so. And I always make sure that the people I'm mentoring are female because we need the support. And it's so much easier to do things in life if you can point to someone who's already done it and said, "If she can do it, so can I." And so that in itself is fantastic because so many young women can look at any of the women that were in that program, all six of us and say, "If they can do it. So can I."
Katie Dean: I love hearing that Amanda and I could talk about women entrepreneurship all day with you, I think. But I want to dive into Summit Nanotech. So if I understand correctly Summit Nanotech extracts lithium from brine, which is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. No, not at all. Okay.
Amanda Hall: Everyone gets this wrong [crosstalk 00:02:44]. I'm sure that there's some seed article somewhere that made that mistake and it just percolated through, but we don't use oil and gas waste at all. We go for raw brine, raw natural brines that are underground. And our target market is South America. And there's no oil in these brines. They're just, they're shallow, they're like within 300 meters of the surface, they're cold. They're not even hot brines, they're cold brines and there's no oil or gas in them. There's lots of other impurities, but they're impurities that we can handle. So there is lithium in Alberta based and Saskatchewan NBC based oil field brines, but it's such, such small quantities that it's so expensive to get it out. So you spend a whole bunch of money and then you get a couple of teaspoons of lithium. And anyway, we're working on developing a technology that will make that process cheaper, so that it becomes economic.
But if you think about it, if the raw brines in Alberta aren't economic to pull lithium out, then if we go to a waste pond and try to do it from there, it's even more expensive because you have more impurities and more pre-processing to do. So Yeah. Canada's not a target for us. But what I, in the Women in Cleantech Challenge, when they gave me the prize money, I said to the government, "I'm going to use this money to develop the technology we need to get Canadian lithium to the market." And I'm standing by that. So we've got in our use of funds budget, a big chunk of that Women in Cleantech prize money is going towards developing the Canadian technology. And what we have to do is remove the hydrocarbons, remove a lot of the other impurities and concentrate the lithium, so that when we run it through our nano materials, it gets done more economically. So that's the challenge that we're trying to solve.
Jon: Is there an area in Canada in particular that would be suitable for that, would make extraction of, Yeah?
Amanda Hall: Yeah. It's all-
Jon: Okay. So, okay. Okay.
Amanda Hall: ... And Saskatchewan, so yes, that whole Williston basin kind of stretches across Alberta and into Saskatchewan. So there's lithium in there and it ranges anywhere from, zero to about 120 parts per million. But that's pretty small. If you think about it in South America, it's more like a thousand parts per million. So 10 times the lithium in the same volume of brine.
Jon: Okay. I have to ask the real ignorant question here, lithium, what is it do? What do we need it for? Why is this a potentially a great resource?
Amanda Hall: It's the lightest, most energy dense element on the planet. So it carries the electric charge between the cathode and the anode in a battery. And because it's so light, it's perfect for anything that needs to be transportable. So laptops, cell phones, electric vehicles, anything that you need to move around, lithium is your guy. Like it's the thing that carries electric charges and the innovation that's gone into the lithium-ion battery space is remarkable. Like we need it to bring the cost down of lithium-ion batteries so that the price of an electric vehicle comes down. And now we're at that point where we're almost at price parity. Where you can buy a combustion engine vehicle, or you can buy an electric vehicle and it's the same cost. So we're getting really close to that point.
Jon: Now, do you see this techno... When you think about what's going on with hydrogen in the ecosystem right now, do you see your technology as a bridge technology or something that's working hand and glove with the hydrogen infrastructure.
Amanda Hall: Yeah. I think they go in parallel. They definitely run in parallel. Like hydrogen is a... Well, and there's a lot of debate around blue hydrogen, green hydrogen, all the different types of hydrogen. But at the end of the day, if you pop the hood of a hydrogen vehicle, there's a lithium-ion battery in there too. So I don't care, you still need my lithium to drive a hydrogen vehicle. So yeah, it's part of the process. So we'll be developing in tandem. Yeah.
Jon: Can you give us a sense of what, in other jurisdictions, with other companies that are extracting lithium, how does it work? What sort of volumes of lithium are they extracting and how does your technology differ from the prevailing technology that's out there?
Amanda Hall: Yeah. So the bulk of the world's lithium comes from South America, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. And it's those ponds I was telling you about earlier that are really shallow, cold, but high, high concentrations. And it was deposited as runoff from the Andes. Like the Andes were volcanic once upon a time and they probably still are, but they've just been kind of docile. But the runoff from those volcanoes pooled into lithium rich [ceylors 00:07:30] both in Argentina and in Chile. So that's where 60% of the world's lithium comes from. And then the other 40% comes Australia, hard rock ore. So that's the kind of mining where you have to use dynamite, blow up rocks, grind it up, dissolve it acid. So it's quite energy intensive and not great for the environment.
Jon: Right. Okay.
Katie Dean: So what are the benefits of lithium economically in Alberta then? Cause you said that it's really hard to get out. It's really expensive to extract that. So what kind of economic benefits can we look for in lithium [crosstalk 00:08:05]?
Amanda Hall: Yeah. Well, there's lots because we've already drilled Wells into The Leduc Formation and other formations that have lithium. If anyone who's in the oil and gas sector though knows that an old well sometimes is more trouble than it's worth. So often we drill a well beside the old well because then you know it's safe. It's not going to, the integrity of the well is modern, not old, then you're not going to get leaks. So we do have infrastructure in place already. So we wouldn't have to necessarily always replicate those costs.
And the other thing that's good about Alberta lithium is that it's already coming to surface with the oil. Like a lot of people don't know this, but when you pull oil out of the ground, often anywhere from nine to 90 barrels of water, brine, come with it. And then we separate it at surface and we put all the brine back underground, and then we take the oil to the refinery and put it in a pipeline. But all that brine is coming to surface at the same time. So it's already here. So like the notion is why not pull the lithium out while you're at surface before you put it back underground in disposal.
Jon: That makes sense. So how much lithium are you, like on the really positive side of things, how much lithium would you be pulling out of a barrel of brine?
Amanda Hall: Oh, good question. I usually think in meters cubed now, like every, because we're international, we don't use barrels anymore. But there's six barrels in a cube so I can probably do the math pretty quickly. But in South America, there's about three and a half kilograms of lithium in a cube of brine. So divide that by six, that's the lithium that's in a barrel, but in Canada it's a 10th of that. So it's yeah. Significantly less. But the price of lithium is skyrocketing. Like in the last year, it went from about $6,000 per ton $28,000 per ton. It is just-
Jon: Holy cow!
Amanda Hall: It's incredible-
Jon: [crosstalk 00:10:02] four times.
Katie Dean: So even if we're not getting as much as South America, there's still a huge opportunity for us to extract that lithium and make 28, would you say $28,000?
Amanda Hall: $28,000 a ton, you have to get it to that grade though before you can sell that. So the challenge is that the opex to make that, to process the lithium can sometimes surpass that 28,000 per ton, depending on what's in the brine, so. And that's why we're working on developing new technologies and the Women in Cleantech program connected us with the NRCan lab in Devon, Alberta, it's called the CanmetENERGY research center. So when the program ended, we continued on with NRCan to try and work with Alberta brines. So we're looking at different ways of concentrating it. We're looking at different ways of creating that end product. That's a higher quality. So we're continuing down that road with the government as our partner, really.
Katie Dean: That NRCan facility that you're talking about in Devon, they share a space with our InnoTech subsidiaries in Devon. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:11:07]
Amanda Hall: Yeah. It's fantastic. It's a world class lab, right in, smack in the middle of Devon, Alberta. So it's beautiful.
Jon: Let's go back to the question I was asking about the technology you have versus the technology that's out there. You mentioned the word mining. Now when people hear the word mining, they immediately think to your example of Australia blowing up rock with dynamite, using acids to dissolve all of this stuff, very environmentally intensive and certainly not benign. So, the other way with the brine in the oil, the shallow oil, that's much less environmentally deleterious. So are you also exploring the other, the rock side of things? That's not-
Amanda Hall: Not yet. But there's an intermediate form of lithium called sedimentary. It's a clay and we can work with clay. But it's kind of like unconventional lithium, no one's ever pulled lithium out of this clay economically, commercially before. But it's such a great opportunity because this clay has lithium concentrations of about a thousand parts per million. So you get a lot more bang for your buck. So we're working with the clay and we're working with the brine, but we haven't touched hard rock yet because we can only do so much as a startup, so.
Katie Dean: So Amanda is there anyone else in Alberta doing some things similar to what you're doing?
Amanda Hall: Yeah. There's a couple other companies, I think. What interesting thing is that our first pilot partner in Chile is actually a Calgary based mining company, Lithium Chile. So, yeah. And they've been our long-time partners. So they're down in both Chile and Argentina developing assets. And our technology is leaving Calgary in two weeks on a ship. And we're heading down there to start doing our first multi-client pilot program. And so it's really great because there's, also Vancouver is full of mining companies too. And so lithium mining companies based in both Calgary and Vancouver have assets all over world, developing lithium, [inaudible 00:13:17] deposits.
But in Alberta itself, like we've done a little bit of work with Calgary based or not Calgary based, Alberta based oil and gas companies to do feasibility analysis. And we've worked with engineering firms and we've gotten samples from Alberta brines. So we're doing our best to keep it going, but because I've got investment dollars that I need to spend wisely, I'm spending it in South America because that's the low hanging fruit and my fastest path to revenue.
Katie Dean: Absolutely. That makes total sense. What does that multi client pilot project look like?
Amanda Hall: It's fantastic. So essentially we started working with customers to bring our technology down to South America and set it up on their mine sites. But each of these customers wanted exclusivity. They wanted a piece of our IP or royalties. And so we basically said no to all that. We rented our own spot in a refining town. It's this little town called La Negra.
And we're setting up our pilot unit there, which is a 40 foot Sea container. It's enormous. And we're having six different customers, truck brine to us. So we can process it, write up reports, give them the products, we get then all sorts of data from six different ceylors. And we don't have to give up exclusivity or anything else. The only bad part was that we had to pay for it ourselves, so. But to me it was worth it because the security of not giving up our IP and not making a bad business decision about exclusivity when we're so young was worth the cost.
Jon: Now, you've mentioned startup. You designed yourself as a startup. The company's been around for three years, is that correct? There's been a massive amount of progress and improvement and just, it's incredible to see, there's quite a trajectory here. And in terms of business advice and working with the community, how does that work for you? Do you have a group of people around you that, entrepreneurial speaking, it's a challenge I would assume? How do you navigate all of this?
Amanda Hall: It's pretty amazing Jon because when I left oil and gas, I was afraid of three things. I thought I destroy my reputation as a geophysicist. I'd have no money and I'd lose all my friends, so. But the exact opposite happened. I landed in a community of people that are more like me. Like entrepreneurs who are kind of fearless and bold and innovative. So I landed in that community. There's a lot of support across the clean-tech sector too, all over Canada. Where all I have to do is pick up the phone and I've got a CEO mentoring me on a situation that they've been in before and I don't know what to do. So even every time I go out to raise capital, I like totally dial into my network and get all sorts of advice on term sheets and negotiations and reputation. And it's really amazing. The cleantech entrepreneurial community is very strong.
Katie Dean: And then [crosstalk 00:16:23].
Amanda Hall: Oh, totally is. And then I left my job as an oil and gas worker where I was drilling heavy oil Wells and I had to sell my house and gave up a year's worth of salary. And I'm a single mom. So this was not an easy decision for me. But three years later I just closed a $14 million Series A financing round. I won the million dollar Women in Cleantech. We've got tons of grant money from NRCan, NRC, Alberta Innovates, like we're getting so much support. So money's not an issue. And my reputation has skyrocketed as a scientist, not just an oil and gas geophysicist, but as a global energy geophysicist. So all those things I was afraid of, it was the opposite. So I'm pretty excited about that.
Jon: No kidding. Congratulations that fantastic.
Katie Dean: That warms my heart and it makes me like kind of fuzzy inside. I think only 12% of women or 12% of clean-tech founders are women, right? And so you represent a very small portion of that industry. And so your support, I think gives hope to other women that they can also do this and in cleantech, which is predominantly male. Right? So good for you. I'm really glad to hear that.
You talked about investments and one of the things that we've heard before is that women struggle to get investments because a lot of the people that are investing in them are men. And typically you invest in what is familiar to you, right? So how has that been? Like you mentioned like you're cash positive right now. So how has that historically been for you?
Amanda Hall: Yeah. So we're not cash flow positive. We have no revenue. Yet. But we have a lot of investment interest. I think there's two things that are key to why it's been pretty, and I'm not going to say easy, because raising capital is hard, it's really hard. But I've turned away, like even this, Series A, round I had about 40 to 50 million dollars being offered to me and I had to turn away a lot of investors and focus on the ones I really wanted to bring into the company.
But I think that the thing that is really exciting about the space I'm in is that the market potential is huge because of the growth of electric vehicles and the technology speaks for itself. So like when I'm down in South America, three years ago, I was told no miner will buy technology from a gringer, as a white woman, but now they're begging me for it. So it's like the technology is selling itself really. No one really cares if I'm a woman or a man, I'm just, I represent, I'm an ambassador for the technology, my team, the Canadian government and an oil and gas person who kind of rebranded.
Jon: That's so, it's so cool. Now I just got a personal question. When you hear someone make a comment like that, that sticks you in the heart, how do you maintain a positive outlook and continue to self inspire yourself to move beyond comments like that?
Amanda Hall: Well you know what's funny is, comments like that fuel my fire. It makes me smile because... And I'll tell you a quick interesting story by the way. Back in, oh my goodness, I can't remember when, but I was at Inventures, which is an Alberta Innovates program, sorry conference. And I pitched and the prize I won from pitching was an hour with a mentor in the ballroom down at the Telus Convention Center. And the mentor listened to me speak for about 20 minutes and then he sat back and he said, "Why are you doing this? This is too big for you." And those words, although some people would be crushed by words like that, that inspired me to prove him wrong. So words like that, you can't do it. They have the opposite effect on me because I just dig in even deeper and say, "Oh, hell yeah, I can." So yeah.
You know and his point was as an entrepreneur you should stay laser focused on something small and do it well, that was his point. Whereas I came into this sector and I wanted to blow it out of the water and be a billion dollar company in five years. That was my vision. And he was just like, whoa, whoa, whoa, this is way too big. You need to like shrink your vision. And so it's probably good advice for the average entrepreneur, but I'm not the average entrepreneur. I'm someone who is not afraid to do big things, so.
Katie Dean: Well you're not the average entrepreneur and your technology is beyond average, so-
Amanda Hall: It is.
Katie Dean: ... Yes, there you go, so that was very poor advice.
Jon: Where did the idea for lithium extraction come from? You were in oil and gas for a while, and then like you just wake up one day and go, "there's all this wasted by product."
Amanda Hall: Yeah. And it came from years of being in the field and seeing resource extraction happening. Like I also worked in potash mines in Saskatchewan for years, where I was actually underground looking at potash. Potash is potassium chloride and lithium is lithium chloride. And they often deposit together. And so down in South America, it was through the extraction of potash that they discovered that they had a lot of lithium as well, and that it was more lucrative than the potash even so. And yes, I've gone to Saskatchewan looking for lithium in the potash mines and it's not there. So everyone always asked me that, but there's none there. So I think what happened is it leached out of the prairie evaporite formation and into The Leduc. So it ended up in that formation instead of the potash formation, so. Oh, where was I going with this?
Oh, so yeah, just my experience in resource extraction. Well, my story, and this is how I begin most of my pitches to investors, is I was at the top of a mountain in Tibet, in a monastery. And I saw Tibet monk pull a cell phone out of his robe. And I was like, "Oh my God! I didn't know there were pockets in those robes." And then it kind of just clicked for me like lithium-ion batteries are everywhere, they're everywhere! And so as a resource extraction expert, my mind just immediately went to, well, where does it come from? And I knew Tibet was a huge producer of lithium, but the environmental impact there was just horrible. So I just kind of fell down the rabbit hole of how is lithium extracted. And then I modeled, my first invention was modeled after the human kidney, of how we could do extraction better. And then we kind of built the technology from there, so.
Katie Dean: The human kidney, that's interesting.
Jon: As a filter for them, fantastic.
Katie Dean: I love that inspiration. So we talked about the Alberta potential economically, but do you think that we have what it takes in terms of talent and education here in Alberta?
Amanda Hall: Yeah. And that's the beautiful thing. So my team grew from, well, we started with two we're at 30 today, 28, today, employees. And I'm about to hire 30 more people. So-
Katie Dean: 30 more?
Amanda Hall: ... 30 more in the next 12 months. And we just moved into a, well we're just about to close the lease on a big, beautiful 22,000 square foot building near the airport. And it's... All of the potential candidates are Albertans, all of them because they have the experience I need to hire. They have the talent I need to bring into the business. So it's amazing. The skillset is transferable and it's needed.
Jon: That is so cool. So 30 people in Calgary.
Amanda Hall: Yep.
Jon: Wow! That's great growth and congratulations on the acquisition of the new area by the airport. We want to come down.
Amanda Hall: You should, it's not [crosstalk 00:24:08] yet.
Jon: I'm going to invite ourselves here. We want to come down and shoot some footage and-
Amanda Hall: That would be great.
Jon: So cool. So now, we talked about the extraction, pulling the lithium out. You process it as well, you're working through. Okay. So you're going to be the full meal deal, right? From extraction down to selling the lithium to companies that are producing Motorola. Is that [crosstalk 00:24:32]?
Amanda Hall: Cathode manufacturers? Yeah. So we take the lithium from its raw form and we concentrate it and purify it on site. All the way up to 99, over 99% pure product. And then we put that in a bag, zip lock it and send it to a cathode manufacturer. And then they take the lithium from that form that we give it to them in because it's... You can't transport lithium in, as lithium metal, because it is flammable and it's really unstable. And so you have to transport it as lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide. So that's what we make and we ship. But then that person takes it from that form into a metal that goes into a cathode, that goes into a battery that goes into an electric vehicle. So we are the front end of the value chain.
And then there's like more, more, more, more, more. Most of that stuff happens in Asia, but there are companies starting to come up in North America, Nano One out of Vancouver could take our raw lithium carbonate and put it straight into their batteries. So yeah. So the value chain is pretty incredible. But we are at the front end, we're at the very front end of that whole value chain.
Jon: Yeah. But when you think about Nano One, this could almost be a made in Canada solution for batteries. Wow! That's really incredible. Now what about the... Does lithium wear out in a battery at some point? "You're like, Oh! It's a lithium. We need to get a new battery." Or is it some other component to the battery that's just like renders it obsolete?
Amanda Hall: Yeah. It's really fascinating how they've developed the lithium-ion battery stability and the speed with which it's, the energies are both expelled or sorry, not expelled, but used and then recharged. So the whole innovation around batteries themselves has just been amazing. But essentially yeah, the cathode and the anode that are inside a lithium-ion battery eventually over time destabilize. And so you start, it slows, you get less lithium moving across that field, carrying the charge and over time, you start to get corrosion inside the battery that makes it not as useful. But we're starting to play with things like graphene to stabilize it or coatings, really cool nano-coatings that can go on the cathodes, where it still allows the lithium to move, but you protect the cathode. So there's just so many cool new technologies out there.
Jon: No kidding. So I'm glad you said graphene because that made me think immediately of another program that we're kind of heading, the Bitumen Beyond Combustion work. To produce carbon fibers and things like graphene, which is just an incredible material. So, just talking to you for this brief period of time, I'm like we've got so much potential in all of these different fields. Getting things, getting government, entrepreneurs, getting people to work together and communicate these things, to talk about these wonderful technologies that you have going and other entrepreneurs have. The future is so bright.
Amanda Hall: It Is.
Katie Dean: Speaking of the future, Amanda, here's a lofty question, but what legacy are you hoping to leave to your kids?
Amanda Hall: That's a beautiful question. It's... We're all on a trans generational journey, right? So you can only do so much in the time that you're alive. But I remember when I was deciding to start my own company, I thought to myself, do I want to leave the legacy of "My mom drills 200 oil Wells a year?" Or do I want to leave a legacy of, "My mom changed the lithium mining space, like set new stands and changed it." And that's what I'm after. I'm trying to redefine what lithium mining looks like and set new standards that the governments and all over the world will impose. So that we do less damage environmentally. And we bring down the cost of lithium-ion batteries so that we can get EVs out to the millions, not just the millionaires.
Katie Dean: I love that and something I've been thinking about too is, and I have no stats to back this up, but it's just like my own perception. I'm finding that there's a lot of women in the kind of GHD reduction industry of whatever kind. And so I was just wondering, why do you think that women are so interested in this?
Amanda Hall: That's a great question and Margaret Atwood said it really well, she was one of the judges of the Women in Cleantech Challenge. And she said, "First of all you can't cut 51% of the population out of the equation for solving the climate change problem." And then she said, secondly, "Women are in the perfect... They're the perfect part of the species to take on this challenge." Because we have that more maternal, nurturing side where we want to... We were the gatherers while the men were out hunting. It's like in our DNA almost to be the homemakers, the nurturers. And I would never say that if I'm negotiating a contract because I'm trying to be hard and tough.
But I think women just think differently than men and every culture thinks differently from one another. So it's about diversity, really bringing in all sorts of backgrounds and genders and cultures and bringing them all into the solution space and working together. So I think there's an uptick in women joining this space because there weren't any there before. So it looks like a lot of women are in the space, but like you said earlier, it's really only 12%. But it just looks like a lot more because we're finally stepping into that role and taking leadership positions.
Katie Dean: Well and it's a very unique voice that women bring, right? It's something that's so technical and scientific that you're matching with the need to protect and nurture our environment, right? So I think we definitely have a very unique voice in that industry. So thank you Amanda. This was so good. I could talk to you about this all day but I think we should wrap it up. And just to say, Amanda, had mentioned that she won the Inventures, one of the Inventures pitch competitions, but for our listeners Inventures is back June 1st to 3rd in Calgary and there is more money to be won at pitch competitions. So visit inventurescanada.com.
Amanda Hall: Thanks. Thanks Katie. Thanks Jon.
Jon: Thanks Amanda. This was really cool.
Katie Dean: Thanks for tuning in. To hear more about what's happening in the Alberta tech ecosystem, visit shift.albertainnovates.ca.