Unearthing the UK’s lithium potential
“Lithium is almost irreplaceable, it’s an essential element of the electric era,” believes Jeremy Wrathall, CEO of mining company Cornish Lithium. “I talked to a professor of batteries at MIT and asked him if there was anything on the horizon to threaten lithium-ion batteries and he said ‘no, next question’.”
The soft, silvery metal is the lightest solid metal, soft enough to be cut with scissors, and can hold an extremely high charge, making it ideal to be used in batteries for electric vehicles and grid storage for renewable energy.
The UK receives most of its battery-grade lithium, used in phones and laptops, from China where it’s processed, creating a large carbon footprint as it’s transported here. Rich sources are mined in Chile, Argentina and Australia.
As demand for electric vehicles grows and the world switches to more sustainable, low-carbon transport and technologies, there’s a big question about whether there is enough lithium to maintain this level of growth. The World Bank estimates demand for lithium is going to increase by 965% in the next 30 years.
Lithium supply chain
Enter a £246m investment fund, the Faraday Battery Challenge, part of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy which is addressing eight vital targets for automotive battery technology.
Li4UK, a consortium made up of mining company Cornish Lithium, multidisciplinary geological consultancy Wardell Armstrong and British institution the Natural History Museum, received £358,566 from the fund. The money will be used for a 12-month feasibility study to examine potential domestic lithium resources, the viability of extracting these resources and locating a lithium conversion plant in the UK to create a critical new industry for Britain.
There are locations being explored in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland but it is Cornwall that is expected to have the greatest potential.
This project is hard to not get excited about when speaking to project leader Chris Broadbent of Wardell Armstrong, a firm which has been in mining for 180 years. Broadbent has been with Wardell Armstrong since 1994, after moving from academic and industrial research to consultancy. Despite travelling all over the world – PlaceTech chatted with him as he was recovering from spending 10 days in Peru – he’s brimming with excitement about this project in the UK.
“It’s good news for the UK, and good news for the environment. A quarter of our company is in mining, the majority of that overseas, to have this potential for mining in the UK is really exciting. A lot of people have been quite surprised by the potential of lithium in the UK and the fact that no-one has really systematically looked at the viability and how much is there. Hopefully this will open the door to a much bigger project.”
The first three months was spent sampling various rocks, and the second quarter is now about processing minerals in Wardell Armstrong’s labs. In the next phase Broadbent’s team is hoping to form a concentrate containing lithium before turning that into lithium carbonate, which is the pre-curser for all the lithium compounds used in battery manufacturing.
The project feels personal for Broadbent: “I started off my career in research at universities and for mining companies, before becoming a consultant at Wardell for the last 25 years. It’s really only the last three or four years I’ve gone back to it as Wardell has become involved in R&D. It’s a new area for the company, and it is proving so exciting and so fulfilling because it feels like my career has come full circle; advising on the mining of the future.”
As society becomes more environmentally focused, with people striking over climate change and property companies making carbon-zero pledges, how will the public react to the concept of lithium mining?
“People are genuinely interested in electric vehicles, therefore the ability to have a social license for mining is much easier when we say ‘we’re mining for environmental technology such as electric vehicles as opposed to a polluting industry’. It’s to benefit modern living and the ability to have transport which is emission-free.”
Cornwall’s council is also supportive of the project as the region tries to promote a mining renaissance. Cornwall was once the mining centre of the world and is still a producer of china clay. Cornwall is also home to the Camborne School of Mines, part of University of Exeter.
Broadbent’s sentiments were echoed by Jeremy Wrathall of project partner Cornish Lithium. Wrathall founded the mining company in 2016 after discovering old geological records from 1864 which identified the presence of Lithium throughout Cornwall. Wrathall’s team have combined historic archives with satellite data imagery and digital 3D mapping using drones, to enable them to evaluate the potential for lithium in Cornwall without extensive drilling. The company aims to create a high-tech, environmentally responsible mining industry.
“There is no battery-grade lithium produced in Europe, and with Europe being a major automotive hub, it’s a big issue for the automakers such as Volkswagen, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover. There’s a growing concern among them about where that lithium is going to come from and whether it’s environmentally friendly,” explained Wrathall.
The price of lithium is currently between $10,000 and $12,000 per tonne before transport costs, and the value of the global lithium market is expected to reach $1.7bn this year. “If you take material from mines in Australia, send it to China for processing and ship it all the way to Europe, that’s a huge carbon footprint and almost negates the environmental benefit of electric cars. It’s much better to mine it as close as possible to the battery manufacturing plant, and that’s why the British government is looking so hard at that.”
Wrathall has 30 years’ experience in mining finance and has advised on transactions globally, including in his most recent role as global head of natural resources at Investec.
Cornish Lithium has just closed a crowdfunding round of £1.4m after hundreds of people got in touch asking to invest in the mining company.
There’s also the potential for Cornwall to benefit from lithium during its extraction process as well as selling the raw material. The project is looking at extraction of lithium from hard rock and brine. The latter is extracted from geothermal water, and the combination of geothermal energy and lithium extraction could develop “significant new industries”.
Wrathall added: “The waste heat could be used in greenhouses for growing vegetables, and for regional heating schemes because the water brought up from underground is hot. It could make a significant difference in lowering the costs of lithium but also generate regional heating.”
So, when can we expect to see a lithium supply in the UK? If this feasibility study is successful, the next step will be a commercial project lasting around two to three years to demonstrate lithium mining at scale.
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By Brian Hurst
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By Alan Ritchie