Part 2: Lithium on the Prairies – What’s happening in Manitoba?

Manitoba is home to the only currently active lithium mine in Canada, the Tantalum Mining Corporation of Canada.

Lithium in Manitoba

While Manitoba has salt brines, most of the province’s lithium is in hard rock formations. The rock containing spodumene, which, in turn, holds the lithium, is called pegmatite, which formed when magma cooled beneath the earth’s surface. 

Pegmatite contains coarse grain crystals that can measure metres across, said Dr. Tania Martins, a Precambrian geologist with the Manitoba Geological Survey and an expert on lithium.

Manitoba’s pegmatites in and around Nopiming Provincial Park and Whiteshell Provincial Park are approximately 2.6 billion years old. In comparison, the pegmatites found near Snow Lake are about 1.7 billion years old, said Martins, who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on lithium-bearing pegmatites. 

Martins said a mining company needs to extract and crush the pegmatite containing the spodumene for lithium in hard rock. Then the spodumene goes through a chemical process called flotation to extract the lithium from the spodumene.

Tanco lithium mine 

Manitoba is home to the only currently active lithium mine in Canada, the Tantalum Mining Corporation of Canada, also known as the Tanco Mine. This underground mine is near Bernic Lake northeast of Lac du Bonnet and close to the southern end of Nopiming Provincial Park. Along with lithium, Tanco, owned by the Chinese company Sinomine Resource Group Co. Ltd., extracts cesium and tantalum. The mine has been in operation since 1969. Sinomine purchased it in 2019.

Sinomine opened Tanco back up to lithium mining in October 2021, according to a news release from the company, which states there are over 4.6 million tons of spodumene to mine at the location.

As part of this decision, Sinomine renovated and restored the mine’s spodumene processing system, which can handle 400 tons of spodumene daily. 

Sinomine expects Tanco to produce 30,000 tons of 5.5 per cent lithium oxide spodumene concentrate annually. 

The company shipped the first 2,000 tons of spodumene concentrates back to China to help meet the raw material demand there, according to another Sinomine news release.

Tanco Mine’s general manager, Joey Champagne, could not be reached. 

A handful of processed lithium. GETTY IMAGES

Other potential lithium projects

New Age Metals, a mining exploration company, has seven lithium projects. Two of them are ready to drill, and another is seeking permits. As such, New Age Metals is the largest single claim holder in the region, CEO Harry Barr said in an interview with The Flatlander. The company has 21,611 hectares of land claims, mainly in the area surrounding Bernic Lake, with a couple near Cat Lake further north.  

The three New Age Metals projects currently underway are: 

  • Lithium 1 located southeast of the Tanco Mine site, and is mostly located in Whiteshell Provincial Park
  • Lithium 2 located north of the Tanco Mine site at Cat Lake. This claim extends into the Nopiming Provincial Park
  • Lithium West located west of the Tanco Mine site.

About Lithium 1, Barr said: “There are forty known pegmatites. We’ve got some really good numbers, up to 4.1 percent on the surface. Anything that is one percent or better in terms of your lithium projects is pretty good.”

Lithium 2 is a historical resource site New Age Metals drilled once before, and they’re planning to drill again in November. It contains more than 540,000 tons of 1.4 per cent lithium, which Barr classified as a “pretty good grade” of concentration. 

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Currently, New Age Metals is having ecological studies done at Lithium West.

Portions of some New Age Metals’ land claims, including Cat Lake, Lithium Two, Lithium North, and Lithium East, sit within Nopiming Provincial Park. And, a portion of their Lithium One project site sits within Whiteshell Provincial Park. 

New Age Metals does exploratory drilling to determine if it’s worth putting a mine in place. The core samples they collect show how much potential an area has for extracting lithium. 

“You could do five or ten rounds of drilling or more,” said Barr, adding his company is working on making more of their land claims drill-ready.

For its lithium exploration, New Age Metals has partnered with Australian mining company Mineral Resources Ltd., which Barr said is the fourth largest lithium producer in the world. 

Under their agreement, the Australian company would decide what to do with the mined lithium. Barr said it’s unknown now whether Mineral Resources Ltd. would process it here or have it shipped to Australia.

Barr said he knows several other exploration companies working in the Winnipeg River pegmatite field. 

Read Part 1: Will lithium mining create an economic boom for the Prairies?

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