The South West of England is famous for its dramatic coastline, green countryside and fresh seafood. If everything goes according to plan, another mainstay of the region could be added in the next few years: lithium mining.
Efforts are being made in the county of Cornwall to develop the area’s natural resources and develop an industry that could one day produce both renewable energy and a local lithium well.
In addition to its use in cellphones, computers, tablets and a host of other devices that are integral to modern life, lithium is vital to electric vehicles and battery storage, two technologies that have a huge role to play in transitioning the planet to a low- and zero-emission future have to play .
Examples of how this burgeoning sector could develop over the next few years are Geothermal Engineering Ltd, a company based near the town of Redruth in Cornwall which specializes in the development and operation of geothermal projects.
In addition to the planned renewable energy operation, GEL is also working on an experimental project focused on extracting lithium from geothermal waters. It is a collaboration with another company, Cornish Lithium, through a joint venture called GeoCubed.
“The aim is to show that lithium hydroxide, a key component of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, can be produced in Cornwall from naturally occurring geothermal water with a net zero carbon footprint,” says GEL.
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The Cornwall project is focused on direct lithium extraction or DLE. According to the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the technologies behind DLE “can be broadly classified into three main categories: adsorption using porous materials that allow lithium bonding, ion exchange, and solvent extraction.”
While its potential is enthusiastic, the NREL warns that scaling the above methods to what it describes as “full production capability” “remains a challenging task.”
“For example, developing a solid material that only associates with lithium is a major challenge in geothermal brine, which contains many minerals and metals,” it says.
Projects like this in Cornwall come at a time when sustainability and ESG concerns are growing. The security of global supply chains is another issue, especially when the vast majority of lithium production is currently dominated by countries like Chile, China, Australia and Argentina.
With this in mind, the commercialization of less intensive, more localized and easily accessible lithium sourcing opportunities could be of tremendous importance in the future.
Major economies and car manufacturers are also planning to increase the number of electric vehicles on our roads. At the same time, the push to expand renewable energy capacity shows no signs of slowing down.
Julia Poliscanova is senior director for e-mobility at Transport & Environment, a campaign group based in Brussels. Speaking to CNBC, she described lithium as “essential for all of our green transitions.”
Regarding the sustainable sourcing of lithium and other materials, Poliscanova said that “in the medium to long term, it is clear that the majority of this has to come from circular business models, especially from recycling”.
She noted that there will be “really immense growth and demand” over the next few decades. This would require new extraction techniques in the short to medium term.
Poliscanova added her point, saying that most of the lithium that will be used in 2030 has not yet been extracted.
“That’s where geothermal lithium comes in,” she said, “because the new lithium, the new resources that we…need needs to be mined sustainably, with as little impact on the environment and our communities as possible.”
GeoCubed’s £4 million ($5.46 million) pilot plant will focus on a range of direct lithium extraction technologies. The overall objective is to develop a commercial facility at GEL’s United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project.
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In an interview with CNBC, Ryan Law, founder and CEO of GEL, outlined the opportunity his company wanted to seize. Below its surface, Cornwall hosts a lot of granitic rocks, which in turn are high in lithium content, Law explained.
“The combination of the lithium-rich granite rock and hot water — hot water can hold more lithium — means the water that we bring to the surface at United Downs to power our power plant is very high in lithium,” he said.
“The next step is: How do we get it out?” Law continued. “And we looked at that in collaboration with a number of partners.”
times are changing
GEL is one of several companies looking to develop facilities focused on direct lithium extraction. In addition to GeoCubed, Cornish Lithium is also working on a number of other projects.
Listed elsewhere in Australia as of April 2021 Volcanic Energy Resources said its direct lithium extraction pilot plant in Germany’s Upper Rhine Valley has started operations.
In the US, a company called Controlled Thermal Resources announced in November that it had begun its drilling program at the Hell’s Kitchen lithium and energy project in California.
At the time, CEO Rod Colwell said the company was “on track to deliver the project’s first 50MW of renewable baseload power in late 2023 and an estimated 20,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide in 2024.”
The Hell’s Kitchen project is attracting the attention of a few key players. Last summer, General Motors said it “agreed to enter into a strategic investment and commercial collaboration with Controlled Thermal Resources to secure local and low-cost lithium.”
“GM will be the first investor to receive initial rights to lithium produced in the first phase of the Hell’s Kitchen project, including an option for a multi-year relationship,” the automaker later added.
The above developments are in various stages of progress, but if they are able to produce on a large scale, it could lead to a sea change in the way lithium is extracted.
According to the NREL, most of the lithium comes from “open pit mines or lithium-bearing saltwater beneath salt flats.”
The latter is described as salt water containing lithium being “pumped into large pools where it evaporates under the sun”.
The environmental impact of such processes can be significant. The NREL says that both open pit mining and the salt flats method “can lead to land destruction, potential contamination and high water consumption, particularly in areas already suffering from drought and desertification.” In addition, they also take up a lot of space.
In contrast, DLE enables “a more sustainable lithium supply, including the use of geothermal energy as a renewable energy source for production.”
This image shows Geothermal Engineering Ltd’s proof-of-concept power plant at the United Downs Industrial Estate in Cornwall, England.
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Transport & Environment’s Poliscanova, who is also Special Advisor to the Board of Vulcan Energy, went on to emphasize the importance of geothermal lithium as a complement to recycling efforts and circular economy ideas. Recycling, she later said, should be the “number one priority.”
Indeed, recycling seems to play a key role in the future, especially in the EV sector. Elon Musk’s Tesla, for example, says all of its scrapped lithium-ion batteries are recycled.
And back in November, Swedish battery company Northvolt announced it had made its first battery cell with what it describes “100% recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt.”
Back in Cornwall, the GeoCubed project continues. Earlier this month it announced that it had selected a company called Ross-shire Engineering to provide Engineering, Procurement, Build and Commissioning or EPCC support to its pilot plant.
Its statement also referenced an electric submersible pump test conducted by GEL in August 2021, which resulted in the extraction of “a bulk sample of geothermal water.”
GeoCubed said the lithium concentrations in the sample were “encouraging,” adding that “other important by-products such as cesium, rubidium, and potassium were shown to be present at elevated concentrations.”
If everything goes according to plan, the pilot plant will go into operation at the end of March this year.