Work is underway at British Lithium’s £4m pilot plant near St Austell in Cornwall to show how battery-grade lithium carbonate can be sustainably extracted from the local rocks.

“We came down here about four years ago and, in 2018, we found a substantial deposit of lithium in mica granite,” says Roderick Smith, chair of British Lithium. “We had to work out how to extract the lithium because it has not been produced commercially from this kind of rock anywhere in the world.”

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Founded in 2016, British Lithium aims to begin full-scale production of 21,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per year within the next three to five years — subject to a feasibility study next year — to help meet the growing demand of lithium for electric vehicles (EVs).

One of the most abundant minerals on earth, lithium is typically sourced from brine in salt lakes, such as in the salt flats in South America, or in hardrock or pegmatites, as in Australia.

Demand for lithium has been outstripping supply as governments phase out the use of internal combustion engines and car manufacturers around the world invest billions into battery manufacturing facilities, causing the price of the metal to swell to new highs.

Concerns over security of supply have underscored the need for the localisation of value chains in Europe — a continent with little upstream facility. Yet, while businesses such as British Lithium are keen to emphasise that “globally significant” amounts of lithium can kickstart a mining revolution, others remain sceptical over the commercial viability of the technology and the capacity for the UK to develop its own domestic supply chain.

‘Heroes’ of lithium?

“One location, one project, one source,” says Mr Smith as he explains British Lithium’s plans to initiate lithium mining in Cornwall. “It’s difficult, but if we can successfully build the technology and build a mine, we’ll be heroes.”

With £3m worth of funding from Innovate UK, the country's innovation agency, and private donations, British Lithium set about building its pilot plant early this year, having undergone four years of intensive research and development (R&D). 

A spokesperson for the UK government told fDi that “the EV revolution is increasing the need for readily available battery-metals, and this demand creates significant opportunities to source such metals from Cornwall”.

Kathryn Goodenough, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey, asserts that the prospect of there being lithium in Cornwall “is not ‘pie in the sky’”. 

“There is no doubt that there is lithium in hardrock and in brines in Cornwall. The question is whether the lithium can actually be extracted in an efficient and economic way,” Ms Goodneough says. “Because in both cases, it’s new technology that has not been used commercially before.”

Commercial viability

Fellow prospective miner, Cornish Lithium, has been testing for lithium in both hardrock and in geothermal brines at its Trelavour and United Downs sites, respectively.

Jeremy Wrathall, founder of Cornish Lithium, says that “it’s good to have two horses in the race”, adding that investors have also been compelled by the rising price of lithium. 

When asked about the concern that the technology has never been put to the commercial scale test, Mr Wrathall says that “there has been no commercial imperative to do so before now”.

Cornish Lithium has forecast its production of lithium from hardrock at roughly 10,000 tonnes per year. He is unable to say what a ballpark figure for geothermal brine would be, but maintains that it is “very significant”.

Together with Geothermal Engineering Limited, the company is looking to establish a pilot testing plant by the end of March 2022, demonstrating the capabilities of extracting lithium hydroxide.

In November, the company announced that it raised £18m in funding from mining investor TechMet, which it said “allows the company to step up its activities towards creating a domestic supply of lithium and other battery metals for the UK”.

Domestic supply chain

With projections from British Lithium and Cornish Lithium compiled together, lithium production from hardrock in Cornwall could hit 30,000 tonnes per year, should both ventures come off.

But this does not get lithium production even halfway to the expected domestic demand. The UK will need 75,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent per year by 2035 to supply EVs, according to the Faraday Institution’s forecasts.

George Miller, analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, says that “it is welcome to see different types of resources being produced or attempted to be produced” in anticipation of expected shortages. 

Yet, he expresses doubt over whether the rest of the supply chain can be developed in the UK, especially after cathode manufacturer Johnson Matthey exited the industry in November.

“Would it then make sense to ship lithium to Europe and then back to the UK? No, you would just be adding costs,” Mr Miller asks, pointing to even bigger projects are underway elsewhere in Europe for battery-grade lithium production.

In July, Anglo–Australian miner Rio Tinto committed $2.4bn to its Jadar lithium borates project in Serbia — one of the largest greenfield lithium projects in the world.

Changing narrative of Cornwall

Nonetheless, the image of Cornwall is evolving to embrace this prospect, with government ministers and money coming into the tourism-dependent, neglected region.

“Cornwall has always been considered a less-developed region, in EU terminology, and benefitted from a disproportionate amount of public support,” says Mike King, managing director at Cornwall Development Company.

“But we now have investment propositions in lithium, tin and floating offshore wind that will make material contribution,” he adds. “The narrative of Cornwall has changed quite fundamentally.” 

Mr King insists that this is not an “invest in the UK ploy”. Instead, he says, “I don’t think we’re in a hypothetical realm because a lot of work has been done across lithium and tin.”

Anglo–Canadian company Cornish Metals has also decided to reopen its South Crofty copper and tin mine, which closed in 1998 following the demise of mining in Cornwall. In February, it started trading on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market.

While the world waits to see whether or not lithium mining in Cornwall can be pulled off, Mr Smith is happy to be amidst the pleasant surroundings on his new extractive adventure. 

“I’ve spent my life building mines in Australia and Africa. They’re usually horrible places where you have to overpay to attract people. Now, graduates of the Camborne School of Mines [which is based near Falmouth in Cornwall] are coming back and there’s immense community support. It’s a really great place to work,” he says.

This article was first published in the December 2021/January 2022 edition of fDi Intelligence magazine. Read the online edition here.