“Be courageous and be bold, trusting in your ability to learn, master and add value anywhere you go. With hard work, passion and persistence, success will undoubtedly follow.”
Amanda Hall is the CEO of Summit Nanotech, a company developing lithium extraction technology for the growing lithium ion battery sector. She is a professional geophysicist with 12 years of experience working in the oil and gas and mining industries in Calgary, Alberta, and 4 years in an industrial laboratory in Toronto, Ontario. After graduating from the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor of Science degree majoring in Biology with minors in Physics and English, Amanda moved west, and attended University of Calgary to obtain a second Bachelor of Science degree in Geophysics, while raising her three young daughters.
Amanda is passionate about growing a humancentric company, employing innovative, resourceful people who feel responsible for rapidly creating the change that is needed in our energy landscape today using wisdom, technology and adaptive solutions. Earlier on in her career, she proved to be a good team worker and has now gained prominence as a good company leader. She has struck an admirable balance between her productive career and personal activities.
On being approached for this interview, Amanda agreed without hesitation. She is warm, polite and full of energy. Following are excerpts from the conversation.
Amanda, let us begin by asking you about your educational qualifications and your work experience.
My first degree, from the University of Toronto – Trinity College – was a BSc majoring in Human Biology and with minors in Physics and English. Trinity College was an eccentric place, complete with secret societies, mandatory robes and embedded traditions rich with lore and historical relevance. Trinity housed some of the smartest students in the world, but you know what they say about the fine line between genius and insanity. Regardless, I met amazing people, resulting in friendships that have survived the test of time. I worked for 4 years in the Redpath Sugars refinery in Toronto in their Quality Control Laboratory at the heart of the facility. This is where I cut my teeth on understanding the operations of large refineries and achieving remarkable purity standards – something that has become useful in my recent endeavors with lithium processing. My second degree was a BSc from the University of Calgary in Geophysics. This degree took me 8 years to finish because I had three babies and ran a day-home. It was a super chaotic time in my life but I loved geophysics and I knew that it was something I had to pursue.
How did you switch over from biology to geophysics?
Transitioning between biology and geophysics was not that much of a stretch. The laws of physics govern all biological processes, after all. In hindsight, I am grateful that I had a cross-disciplinary understanding of processes, because it helped me invent one of the stages of our lithium extraction process, which is based on biomimicry.
So, you began your career in geophysics by working with potash mining companies, to image the subsurface Prairie Evaporite Formation for optimizing resource extraction and reducing hazards. Tell us about your experience there.
I was spoiled at my first job at Boyd PetroSearch. I got to sit beside and learn seismic interpretation from the legendary geophysicists. The 3D data I was able to work with had spectacular frequencies and fold. There was so much of it, and the demand to continuously shoot new programs was high. Potash miners in Saskatchewan need to see everything before they can expand their mine, which is like a tiny underground city with rooms, jeeps, roads and electrical grids lighting up most areas. Underground in a potash mine, you can hear a snap-crackle-pop sound coming from the walls, because the salt is constantly moving and closing in on you. People’s lives are at risk if hazards are introduced, and water is a big hazard in potash mines. So, identifying places where water-bearing formations could intersect or breach the Prairie Evaporite salt formation was an important part of my job. Using geophysical interpretation techniques, I could see everything underground up to 1-2 km deep. My job was to map hazards, guide miners, look for the best potash resource, avoid carnallite deposits, and find the safest locations for creating new salt caverns. The miners were so impressed by our ability to make sense of their resource play that they encouraged advanced interpretation, like spectral decomposition, inversion and attributes like coherence and curvature. We milked every drop of information we could from each post-stack dataset. Boyd PetroSearch was an exciting place to learn geophysics.
Thereafter you became a seismic interpreter. How was that experience?
When I left Boyd PetroSearch, I joined Laurie Bellman at Oil Sands Imaging, which soon thereafter rebranded to become Sound QI. Laurie taught me everything I now know about AVO inversion, facies classification, multivariate analysis, and introduced me to attributes that I didn’t even know existed. She taught me how to marry the extraction of relevant attributes from seismic data with the business-driven needs of clients who had problems that need solving. I also greatly value what I learned from Laurie about running a business. I saw in her the cycles of elation and stress that come from building a company from the ground up. She was inspiring, hardworking and savvy. As a mentor and leader, she celebrated my ambition rather than stifled it, for which I will be forever grateful.
Can you share one or two of your most exciting successes and any disappointments during your stint as an interpreter?
Some of the most exciting moments I have experienced in my career involved guiding horizontal drillers through a 2 m thick formation, watching them access the most porous and oil-rich zones of a reservoir with amazing precision based on my analysis and interpretation. I felt proud to be on a team that directly contributed to the economic success of a company; it was a thrill. My most frustrating days usually involved discussions with teammates in which the words, “Don’t over-science this, Amanda”, were uttered. When time and money were limited, it was hard to step back and let operations proceed knowing that I could provide more data to help do the job right. These are important learning moments as a geophysicist. They teach you to recognize when working with less is the right thing to do. In the end, these lessons built in me a determination to interpret faster and find ways to contribute that didn’t require any excess capital.
In your opinion, what is required for a seismic interpreter to remain successful in life? What is one thing that all successful interpreters never do?
Integrity, persistence and confidence is what interpreters need to be successful. Interpretation can feel like a marathon some days – your back hurts, your eyes are strained, your maps look terrible, but if you push through and keep going, trying all possible iterations of manipulating the data, being honest with yourself about what isn’t working, then eventually you will find a way to create value for your team. Understanding your own biases and being able to systematically mitigate for each one is a very important part of scientific discovery. It seems counterintuitive, but doubting yourself at the right time can lead to greater success and confidence in your deliverables in the end.
There is a certain amount of creativity that is required for doing effective seismic interpretation. Do you agree with that statement?
There is a danger in promoting creativity in interpretation when one does not take the time to perform the foundational exercises that act as a base for that creativity. Structure maps and amplitude maps are a really important place to start. However, in my opinion, although many interpreters stop there, this is not enough. Those processes are only the beginning of the story that is unfolding as one explores the data. Creativity comes with a desire for a deeper understanding of the depositional environment and ideating on how to optimize flow. Pulling in all geological and petrophysical data available is a must, but thereafter an interpreter must unleash their inner Sherlock Holmes. One of my favourite moments as an interpreter happened one evening as I was leaving the office at Oil Sands Imaging to go home. I passed by one of my colleagues, Marissa Whittaker, still working away. I asked her why she was staying late? She smiled and said, “I think I’m onto something.” Those words have stuck with me over the years as I worked on projects and explored possibilities. To me, that statement embodies the reward that we attain as interpreters when we unpack mysteries or find clues that can lead to a better understanding of all options while de-risking our decision making.
And then you decided to take a bold leap and venture out into nanotechnology, innovative research, lithium extraction, etc., which was very different from your earlier geophysics experience. What made you decide on that?
Switching to the lithium space was a strategic decision for me. Throughout my career I tried to pay attention to larger forces at play and listen to voices outside of my typical circle of influence. I wanted to future-proof my career and have a sizeable impact during the transgenerational journey of my life. I realized that, to achieve this, I needed to do something drastic. So, I quit my job, taught myself nanotechnology, started a new company and found the right team of employees, investors and mentors to help me succeed.
What personal trait(s) do you think helped you become the CEO of Summit Nanotech Corp.?
I am a believer that one’s greatest strength can also become one’s greatest weakness. Therefore, the personal traits that helped me become a CEO definitely need to remain in check. I am a stubborn, independent, passionate person who feels responsible for doing the right thing. I try to push the boundaries of my own thinking and I don’t like feeling confined by conventional processes. Understanding how these traits could lead to my undoing gives me the wisdom to push back on my own ignorance and avoid getting in the way of my own success. Therefore, I give in sometimes, lean on other people, check my emotions at the door, and look to convention for stability. Perhaps my greatest personal trait then in becoming a strong CEO, is knowing that I am imperfect and that I can fail.
Please tell us about this nanotechnology, lithium extraction business that you are now engaged in.
When I first started learning about the lithium space, I looked for problems that needed solving. Having come from oil and gas, and being frustrated at times with low recovery factors, I decided to look at lithium reserves and see how their current processes performed. I was surprised to see that once the lithium rich brines were brought to surface, less than 40% of the lithium made it through to the end product. With such low yield, it seemed obvious to me that there had to be a better method of extraction. I wanted to look at the process from a physics perspective, rather than a chemistry perspective. Instead of chemically removing most of the impurities from the brine by altering pH and initiating precipitation, I thought that it might be better to have a membrane that selectively filters lithium away from impurities in solution. Given my human biology background, I studied human processes and ended up designing our technology using biomimicry. The final process has changed a lot from my original design, but the principles of operation are still intact. Using this new method, we can double lithium yield, create less waste, and significantly reduce environmental impact. This technology has the capacity to disrupt the lithium mining sector.
Are there any environmental effects of lithium extraction, and how do you address them?
Demand for lithium is expected to increase 500% in the next 5 years, ergo, the environmental impact from the process we currently use to extract and refine lithium will also increase 500% in the next 5 years. Traditional processes are not sustainable - they use too much fresh water, create too much chemical waste and emit high levels of GHG emissions. This must be improved dramatically in order to sustainably expand lithium production to meet growing demand for EV batteries. Our technology addresses each of these issues. We use no fresh water, we create less chemical waste, and we reduce the amount of GHG emitted. Our technology has attracted the attention and support of impact investors, cleantech accelerators and lithium miners, globally.
Lithium has skyrocketed on the back of a huge demand created by the battery industry. Where does Canada stand in terms of worldwide lithium production?
Canada is in a good position to access lithium that is dissolved in oil field brines, however, it has its challenges. Wells are drilled and infrastructure is already built, reducing the capital costs required to get up and running, however, lithium concentrations are low. Operating costs to extract lithium from oil field brines could make the entire process uneconomic, especially with the low lithium prices we see today. At Summit, we are working on improving efficiencies, reducing our own operation costs while testing Alberta and Saskatchewan based brines. In the meantime, Alberta needs to regulate the resource and set up supply chains to sell lithium into global markets. This will not happen overnight. We need the government to support the potential for lithium production the same way they supported the growth of the oil sector long ago.
What are you planning now? I mean, what professional goals are you working towards?
Building Summit Nanotech is the hardest thing I have ever done. In the short term, my plan is to get to a state of recurring revenue as quickly as possible by deploying our technology at lithium mine sites in South America, geothermal sites in USA and produced water sites in Canada. My longer-term plan is to continue to innovate, bringing new solutions to market and solving more problems in the industrial landscape, while continuing to leverage advances in nanotechnology.
I am reminded of an expression that says, ‘Life expands or shrinks in proportion to one’s courage’. How would you react to it? Does it hold true in your case?
Coincidentally, I have had that quote written on a chalk board in my kitchen for almost a decade. I completely agree! I have told many people that anyone can do what I did. You merely have to give yourself permission to think outside the box, imagine new possibilities and then take a long, hard look at your own assumptions. When I left the oil and gas sector, I was afraid that I would tarnish my reputation as a geophysicist, but I was dead wrong. I cannot impress upon you enough that the credibility you possess with the title “Geophysicist” in other arenas is substantial. Being a geophysicist is not something you lose – it’s something that you carry with you as a badge of honour wherever you go, and it will open doors. Life indeed expands in proportion to one’s courage.
You have been active in many service and volunteer activities. Please tell us about them.
Over the years, I have gotten a lot out of volunteering for the CSEG, SEG and APEGA. It’s humbling to mentor and a privilege to pass what I have learned onto new and budding geoscientists. In my new role as a CEO, I am relying on others to guide me through the stages of commercializing technology and growing a company. I am the fledging once more and I’m extremely grateful to all of my mentors for generously offering their time and caring attention. The best mentees are those who listen and act on advice. Karma has a way of balancing out one’s efforts to help others.
What are your other interests?
Apart from spending time with my three daughters and getting out for runs once in a while, I enjoy reading, biking and hiking. I also have to confess that I am a politics junkie and I work 16-hour days. The funny thing is that my work doesn’t feel like a burden because I am so passionate about what we are doing and driven to succeed. This path I have chosen is rich with meaning and personal reward. I am motivated and empowered by the purpose at the core of my company, and my team feels like family. I am excited by the prospect of launching our technology in Chile with our pilot partners, Lithium Chile. Learning about Chilean history, culture and business operations will be the highlight of the next year.
Given the strange times we are all going through, and the present state of the oil and gas industry in our province and country, would you say you made the right decision at the right time to quit the oil and gas industry?
I believe I made the right decision in transitioning to the lithium industry in 2018. I have taken this time to build a network and establish a reputation as a thought leader in the lithium extraction space. My team is rock solid and we are all rowing in the same direction. I am the first to admit, however, that I could not have started a cleantech company without everything I learned from my mentors and friends in the oil & gas sector. My education and experience over the years has culminated to allow me to make this transition with confidence. I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants with support from my new network in the cleantech space and my pre-existing network in the geophysical space.
Would you have any words of advice or inspiration for young people considering a career in geophysics or elsewhere?
My advice for young geoscientists is to pay attention to global opportunities that arise. Read as much as you can and hang out at the leading edge of innovation. There are so many exciting technologies coming onto the scene, and with change comes the need to build new systems and a chance to be part of exciting trends for the future. Be courageous and be bold, trusting in your ability to learn, master and add value anywhere you go. With hard work, passion and persistence, success will undoubtedly follow.