03 Oct Carving a niche in Cornish lithium
In 2016, Cornish Lithium was set up to take advantage of Cornwall’s historic reserves of lithium and the increasingly bullish market for the previously unremarkable mineral. Then in August this year, the company managed to secure the necessary investment to begin exploration works.
Cornish Lithium is now hoping to be the first company in the UK to take advantage of the increasing demand for lithium, driven by the metal’s use in electric car batteries. “The brains of not only Britain, but elsewhere are beginning to wake up to the fact that we need an awful lot more lithium if this electric car revolution is to be sustained,” says Cornish Lithium CEO Jeremy Wrathall.
It is this ‘revolution’ in which the company hopes to take part, by using minimally intrusive bore holes to access the lithium-filled saline brines that sit below the Cornish countryside.
If the company successfully retrieves resources, finding a market won’t be a problem. As Tesla’s new battery factory in Nevada, US ramps up production to its highest ever levels, more lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries will be produced at this single facility by 2020 than the entire global production in 2013. Tesla’s Gigafactory, along with other facilities, will rely on finding new sources of lithium to fulfil demand.
The right time and place for investing in lithium
“I was told by a friend of mine about six years ago that he was trying to restart the South Crofty tin mine,” says Wrathall. “He said that they’ve got everything in that mine, tin, copper, zinc and lithium coming in at depth. I promptly forgot about it, and only remembered in 2016 when electric cars started to really gear up.”
The growth in the electric vehicles (EV) market and the demand for Li-on batteries that followed has completely changed the prospects for lithium mining. In 2016, the number of EVs on the road rose to over two billion worldwide, marking a colossal jump over the last decade from less than 200,000 on the road in 2006.
“Between 2015 and 2016, sales of EVs increased by 60% and growth in the market is set to continue as countries step away from conventional combustion engine cars.”
Importantly, between 2015 and 2016, sales increased by 60% and growth in the EV market is set to continue as countries step away from conventional combustion engine cars in efforts to reduce pollution. Earlier this year, Britain followed France’s example by committing to banning new petrol and diesel cars by 2040.
This provided a key motivation for Wrathall to pursue lithium in Cornwall. “What gave me great encouragement that [lithium mining in Cornwall] was do-able was a) there’s now a market for lithium that there wasn’t before because of electric cars and battery storage, and b) because the technology has changed, or is changing,” he explains.
“Historically, lithium has been extracted in Chile using solar evaporation, which is a really is old technology,” Wrathall continues. “They’re merely taking advantage of the fact that they’re 4,000m up and there’s no electricity, so they have to use an evaporation technique. That technology hasn’t really changed in thousands of years – the Romans used solar evaporation pools in places like Malta.
“Now there are new technologies using membranes, reverse osmosis, ion exchange and solvent extraction. All of these processes are being used to extract lithium directly from brine without an evaporation step. That’s what encouraged me to do it, because obviously although I’d love to say you could build a solar evaporation pool in Cornwall, it’s just not going to happen.”
Research by the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), Finland, showed that new methods such as these allowed 99.9% of lithium to be recovered from natural salt pools and brines.