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The Once And Future Boom

The Once And Future Boom

Lithium, and how the territories could strike it rich if all goes to plan
By Elaine Anselmi
Nov 28
2016
From the November 2016 Issue

There was a time when people didn’t think smartphones would take off. Now, most people can't put them down. The same skepticism met electric cars and hybrids, which are slowly growing in numbers on North American streets. What’s made these new technologies possible is a corresponding advancement in battery technology—and that relies on lithium. 

That’s good news for the Northwest Territories. Always on the lookout for the next boom, a possible store of lithium near a popular camping and canoeing spot might just fit the bill. On the shores of Hidden Lake, junior exploration company 92 Resources has staked out 1,100 hectares about an hour outside Yellowknife that has the potential for lithium.

Lithium is a soft, silvery metal with the lowest density of all metals, making it also the lightest. That makes it useful for, say, aerospace technology. The low atomic mass also gives it a high chargeability and power-to-weight ratio in batteries.

Besides plans to colonize Mars and fill our highways with self-driving cars, billionaire inventor Elon Musk is developing new, high-capacity and (hopefully) affordable rechargeable batteries. Combined with alternative energy generation technology, these batteries could store enough energy to power homes and businesses. To make these batteries, innovators like Musk will need more lithium than is projected to be produced.

Enter the North. In Nunavut, there's some development underway on a lithium prospect 250 km southeast of Kugluktuk; in the Yukon, there's next to none, though they’re looking through the last few decades of stream sediment samples with new technology to get a better idea of what could've been missed. But the NWT has a history of supplying this curious metal and the potential to do it again. 

“A lot of deposits around the Northwest Territories, they actually saw production in the Second World War,” says Hendrik Falck, district geologist with the NWT Geological Survey. “There was a high demand for strategic elements at that point and so under those sort of pressures, what we have is known enough and well enough examined to be put into production.”

At the time, lithium was used largely in aircraft engine lubricant, but now it’s used in not only batteries but other electronics and ceramics. These uses often require a purer form of lithium than what's extracted (the cheaper way) from salt brines and clay. This preference could tip the scales toward the (albeit more costly) process of mining pegmatites—rocks containing certain minerals like spodumene and petalite, that have particularly high concentrations of lithium. 

But the Hidden Lake deposit has more going for it than a purer stock. It’s easily accessible right near the Ingraham Trail highway—and in a region dismally short on roads, that in itself is an anomoly. While the area surrounding Yellowknife is thought to be the NWT’s best bet for lithium mining, the Mackenzie Mountains, straddling the Yukon border, are also known to have lithium—but the remote location makes it less economical.

Demand will invariably change the definition of what’s worth it. Tesla Motors’ electric cars are nothing without their lithium-ion batteries, hence Tesla CEO Musk’s work toward the ribbon-cutting on his new Tesla Gigafactory. The massive facility outside Sparks, Nevada will begin cell production for its promising lithium-ion batteries next year, reaching full capacity by 2020.

“Even though it’s probably cheaper to evaporate seawater, if you want a certain purity and for certain uses, you need to go to a pegmatite and that style of deposit,” says Falck. “Over the last few years, between the other sources of lithium, the pegmatite ones are too expensive to compete with those. Now, as new uses that require just pegmatitic material are developed … that’ll increase the demand for these pegmatite deposits.”

 

Platinum & Palladium

These sister metals are pretty, and much rarer than silver and gold, but they are coveted mainly for their industrial uses. “To some degree it is an investor commodity as well—it’s a precious metal—but really it’s catalytic converters that drive that market and to some degree the high-tech sector as well,” says Scott Casselman, an economic geologist with the Yukon Geological Survey.

There has been exploration for platinum-palladium near Province Lake in the NWT, just southwest of Ekati diamond mine. Caribou Lake in the Beaufort Delta and Thor Lake, outside of Yellowknife near Blachford Lake Lodge are also known as potential locations for the resource.

“Platinum-palladium are byproducts of base metals like nickel deposits,” says Marie-Claude Williamson, a geochemist with Natural Resources Canada’s Geological Survey of Canada. “The type of environment where you could find palladium and platinum is there both in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.” Exploration is underway for nickel-bearing deposits on Victoria Island, split between the NWT and Nunavut, though Williamson says there have been more occurrences of copper than nickel so far.

In the Yukon, platinum and palladium are exclusively found in the southwest corner in what’s known as the Kluane Ultramasic Belt, says Casselman. Two deposits have been identified: Canalask and Wellgreen.  A small mine actually operated in the region around the 1960s.

What’s the trend? The world’s supply of platinum is expected to go into a slight deficit in the coming months and analysts see palladium continuing on that trend too.  This demand could translate to higher prices for producers. 

 

Cobalt

After smelting, this chemical element is hard and shiny and silverish. Its blue pigments were used for centuries in dyes and paints, but today cobalt is used in medicine and alongside lithium in rechargeable batteries and in smartphones. 

The NICO deposit northwest of Yellowknife has been identified as a source of cobalt, as well as gold, copper and bismuth. Several occurrences of cobalt have also been explored in Nunavut—first in 1987 at Ferguson Lake and more of it’s being found in the same area, alongside copper, nickel, platinum and palladium.

Internationally, cobalt mining practices have been called into question. In the Republic of Congo, human rights organizations have accused mining companies of using child labour and creating hazardous work conditions. With more regulations in place, Canadian-mined cobalt would obviously be seen as more marketable among consumers.

What’s the trend? What cobalt has going for it is limited supply and growing demand—particularly for its use in renewable batteries and electronics. If you can produce cobalt outside of the Congo, you’re looking good.

 

Beryllium

This rare element is contained within various gemstones such as beryl (a more common example of this being emerald). On its own, the mineral is dark-grey and strong, but at the same time lightweight—hence its use as a steel hardener and agent in the aerospace industry. 

Across the NWT, there are a few showings of the element, the Thor Lake T-Zone being the most prominent. “If it’s a gem deposit you usually hear about it as an emerald or ruby,” says Falck, adding there have been showings in the Mackenzie Mountains, such as the Lened tungsten property. “Emeralds form in a couple of different settings. Pegmatites are one and where you have a lot of black shale and hot fluids entered into them—the Colombian emeralds follow that pattern a bit more.”

The last exploration for beryls in the Yukon was at the True North Gems property, southwest of Ross River, in the early 2000s.

“The quality was good but they were too affected by freezing and thawing, so any grains they found complete were fractured,” says Casselman. “What they could find was good quality but not sizeable enough to make it valuable.”

What’s the trend? Beryllium’s been used in industrial and military equipment, but is finding new applications every day—like in radio-imaging equipment and nuclear reactors. 

 

Iron

Various components can be extracted from these rocks to create steel and different forms of iron. The appearance can vary from dark grayish in colour to a deep purple or reddish hue.

The most well-known and developed store is Baffinland’s Mary River project in Nunavut’s Qikiqtani Region. The mine has been in operation since 2014 and began shipping the resource to Europe from its Baffin Island port last year.

Further west, the challenge with developing iron ore deposits lies in transportation. “We have a number of iron ore deposits, probably the biggest of them is a deposit straddling the Yukon-NWT border called Crest,” says Falck. “The challenge for it is it’s nowhere near tidewater, so it has problems. We have a lot of iron but it’s going to be very expensive to get it to market.”

What’s the trend? It’s been a rough ride for iron ore and prices are expected to drop as Chinese steel production decreases and the market supply remains heavy. If it’s not coming cheap, iron ore producers won’t be making money.

 

Hot tip in cold place

Copper, zinc and lead

Okay, so it’s not news that zinc, lead or copper are present in the North, and Nunavut in particular. Though the Nanisivik mine on Baffin Island has been shuttered since 2002 and Polaris mine on Little Cornwallis Island ended operations that same year, there is news on the horizon that might rock your world. (Ed. We apologize for that one).

The Geological Survey of Canada has noted “whopping anomalies in copper” in some of the furthest reaches of the territory, but this is so recent they have yet to report back to the government on it.

“This environment occurs actually in northernmost Nunavut in an area where there are salt zones,” says Williamson. “It turns out we’re finding areas that are rich in chalcopyrite which is a copper mineral also rich in zinc and we’re just really thrown by the amount of copper there.”