March 6, 2023
There’s a time for every metal.
With the market for electric vehicles and battery storage technology predicted to skyrocket in coming years, demand for critical minerals is growing. With it, lithium – a crucial element to high-tech and green energy sectors – appears poised to recharge the NWT’s exploration sector.
It’s been a long wait. Spodumene-bearing pegmatites that host lithium mineralization were first discovered in the Yellowknife area in the 1940s. But they were of little interest to most prospectors of the day, obsessed with the fortune-making gold strikes the city was founded on.
Still, a few properties were developed. Some 20,000 pounds of lithium was even recovered – as a byproduct of tantalum production – at one mine before it closed in the 1950s. (Some ore was said to be so high-grade it did not require milling.)
Exploration of these pegmatites continued through the 1970s and 1980s, with companies conducting bulk samples of the most promising targets. By the late 1980s though, this work was shelved, and attention soon shifted to a dazzling discovery nearby. That discovery would set off the greatest diamond staking rush in North American history.
Scott Cairns of the Northwest Territories Geological Survey documents a spodumene crystal on the pit wall at the Best Bet deposit not far from the original DeStaffany mine. Photo: GNWT-NTGS
Now, almost a century after being passed over by prospectors north of Great Slave Lake, interest in the NWT’s lithium plays is once-again picking up.
The newfound activity coincides with urgent action from western nations seeking to secure domestic supplies of critical minerals – a group of 31 minerals vital to clean energy, military defence, and telecommunications sectors. Production of many of these minerals is majority controlled by just a few countries, and that puts supply at risk.
In December 2022, the Canadian government released details of a $3.8 billion Critical Minerals Strategy to fund research and innovation, supply chain infrastructure, and targeted geoscience and exploration.
The government also announced a new Critical Mineral Exploration Tax Credit. Combined with the existing flow-through share program, it provides a 30% tax credit to investors for certain exploration expenses incurred by Canadian companies exploring for critical minerals, like lithium.
Given more than half of the 31 critical minerals in Canada’s strategy have been found within the borders of the NWT, the Government of the Northwest Territories is also acting on the opportunity to become a hub of critical mineral investment,
In December, the NWT Geological Survey (NTGS) released a new compilation of critical mineral showings highlighting the distribution of critical mineral finds in the territory.
“We are at a pivotal time for the NWT,” says Caroline Wawzonek, Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI). “Resource availability, technology, market demand and global interest are coming together to create extraordinary opportunities for investment.”
Nowhere is this opportunity greater than the Yellowknife Pegmatite Province (YPP), where dozens of lithium-rich targets have been evaluated within a 100-kilometre radius east of the city.
The World Bank forecasts that annual demand for battery minerals like lithium will increase five-fold in the next three decades and the move towards a net-zero carbon economy has reinvigorated lithium exploration to its busiest point in more than 50 years.
Aeriel view of the “nesting Pegmatites Dykes of the Yellowknife Pegmatite Province.
“The Yellowknife Pegmatite Province is clearly a very strong contender in this global rush for hard-rock lithium, having been described as the largest-known lithium resource in Canada,” says Mike Byrne, Resource Pathfinder with ITI.
The NWT has already experienced an uptick in claim staking. In 2021, 70 new claims were recorded, largely around the outskirts of the Ekati property in the North Slave Region. In 2022, the number of new claims more than doubled to 175, concentrated in the Slave Geological Province and open lands closer to Yellowknife.
There has also been a flurry of lithium property transactions in recent months. In December 2022, Vancouver-based explorer Li-FT Power acquired 14 lithium pegmatite systems in the YPP. Then, in February, it announced its intention to acquire additional mineral leases in the area, covering the site of the former Thompson-Lundmark gold mine, which operated in the 1940s. The company hopes its portfolio of lithium pegmatites – called the Yellowknife Lithium Project – can one day become the largest hard-rock lithium resource in North America.
Li-FT Power is preparing to drill out its most promising targets on a property that has seen little work for the last 35 years. The company also acquired the Cali project, located in another NWT lithium play – the Little Nahanni Pegmatite Field in the Mackenzie Mountains.
In January 2023, North Arrow Minerals acquired the DeStaffany property, covering 1,843 hectares roughly 115 kilometres east of Yellowknife – and just 18 kilometres from Nechalacho, Canada’s first producing rare earth elements mine.
The lithium story comes full circle: DeStaffany was home to the NWT’s first lithium producer in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
If precious metals and stones were the foundation of three generations of mining in the NWT, the next generation may well belong to lithium – now itself an increasingly precious commodity.