Lithium success propels UK in Europe’s battery race
Lithium carbonate, used in electric vehicle battery cells, has been successfully produced from sources in Cornwall and Scotland.
Li4UK, a project to secure a domestic lithium supply funded by UK Research + Innovation, involves a consortium comprising Wardell Armstrong International, the Natural History Museum and Cornish Lithium.
High purity lithium carbonate is a raw material for lithium-ion battery cells, such as those used in electric vehicles.
This breakthrough was achieved following an 18-month project which involved:
- A scoping study covering sites hosting potentially suitable lithium mineralisation in hard rock and geothermal waters
- Field sample collection by NHM and Cornish Lithium, assisted by Camborne School of Mines
- Characterisation and analysis of samples by NHM
- Evaluation and mineral processing of hard rock samples and production of two separate lithium carbonate concentrates at the WAI Mineral Processing Laboratory near Truro
- Assay by the Core Research Laboratories at NHM of the two lithium carbonate products to confirm their purity as near battery grade.
Reimar Seltmann, research leader, NHM, said: “These two samples represent the first known production of lithium carbonate from UK hard rock sources and hence are of great importance for the UK economy. The consortium believes that the positive results from this project will accelerate the development of a domestic supply of battery quality lithium chemicals for the UK automotive and battery industries, and the consequent economic value that such industries would generate.”
Ben Simpson, technical director for mineral processing, WAI, said: “The development of lithium processing technologies at the WAI labs as part of the Li4UK project has been a huge stepping-stone for the electric vehicle and battery manufacturing industries in the UK. It was crucial for the UK to start looking at domestic sources of battery materials and production of lithium-ion batteries, from mine to market; what has been achieved here puts the UK at the forefront of developments in the European battery industry.”
Cornish Lithium CEO, Jeremy Wrathall, said: “Given the potential that has been established by this project to exploit lithium resources in Cornwall, it is possible that the UK could produce a significant percentage of its lithium demand domestically; thus creating a vertically-integrated supply chain and generating additional value for the UK economy. Cornwall also provides access to renewable energy from solar and wind, and offers established infrastructure such as rail, road and port facilities – which represent a considerable advantage over other European lithium projects.”
Lithium is essential for all existing and near-term commercial electric vehicle battery technologies and is thus considered the “gateway element” to a zero-carbon future. It is therefore vital that the UK supply chain focuses on sourcing lithium in a secure, sustainable manner to support its battery manufacturing and zero-carbon ambitions.
An important conclusion of this study is that Cornwall was identified as the most promising area for a future lithium extraction and production industry. Cornwall currently ranks as one of the most economically deprived regions in Europe and it is therefore expected that the development of lithium resources in Cornwall will represent a significant boost to economic activity and regional productivity. The results of the Li4UK study could be instrumental in delivering potentially transformative industrial activity to the region.
The approach taken during the Li4UK project was guided by the experience of consortium members in various lithium-related disciplines, including experience gained during the EU H2020-funded project ‘FAME’ which developed geometallurgical assessment criteria, and studied processing technologies for a number of different types of lithium ores from Europe. This was augmented by technical and business skills from other members of the consortium such as Cornish Lithium, whose team includes highly experienced mining and investment banking executives.
Currently, most of the world’s lithium is produced in South America and Australia and is then shipped to China for processing into lithium chemicals for the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries. Such production has a high associated carbon footprint and means battery manufacturers worldwide are heavily reliant on China for a metal which is fundamental to the energy transition towards a green economy. Importantly, there is currently no commercial production of battery quality lithium in Europe.
Fieldwork: Outcrop examination and documentation by NHM-CLL field expedition, June 2019. Photo credit: Li4UK 2019
Sample processing: Froth flotation (performed by Dominic Conybeare in WAI lab near Truro). Photo credit: WAI 2020
NHM mineral and product characterisation work: Image of lithium carbonate produced from Cornish hard rock samples, taken under a polarised microscope. The samples contain small grains with sizes mostly around 100 microns. The shape of the grains is often leaf-like. The dark images (taken under polarised light) show that most grains have optical anisotropy (they are not extinct = not black). This indicates that the material is crystalline (confirming XRD results). Amorphous material would usually be black under polarised light. Photo credit: NHM 2020