24 Jan UK lithium springs to life
The recent lithium boom has seen the emergence of many new concepts, technologies and ‘discoveries’, but Cornish Lithium appears to have taken the proverbial biscuit.
Pens at the ready: Jeremy Wrathall (left) has sewn up some 30,000ha of land for his ambitious lithium exploration play
The private company, headed up by Investec mining analyst Jeremy Wrathall, is looking to extract the in-demand energy mineral from hot spring brines 400m underground in Cornwall, England.
Many companies have proposed unproven extraction or processing methods to get a piece of the burgeoning lithium market, but nothing quite like this.
Wrathall, who is a graduate of the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, started thinking about the concept five years ago when one of his friends –a former manager of the county’s world-renowned South Crofty tin mine –mentioned numerous recorded instances of lithium brines coming into the shuttered mine in the past.
“That sat in the back of my mind until electric cars really started ramping up last year,” he told Mining Journal.
After looking into the reason behind those lithium brine occurrences dating back to the mid-1800s –apparently, it is down to the interaction between highly saline water from a nearby sedimentary basin and the granite under Cornwall –Wrathall slowly started to realise how far they extended.
“It wasn’t just South Crofty, it was Wheal Seton, Wheal Jane … Wheal Clifford,” he said, name-checking several of the region’s past operating tin mines.
He then went about signing agreements with landowners.
This led Cornish Lithium to Vancouver-based Strongbow Exploration’s (CN:SBW) door, the current owner of South Crofty and a large portfolio of mineral rights in the county. The two have now signed an option agreement to allow Cornish Lithium to explore and potentially develop lithium in hot spring brines and associated geothermal energy overall of Strongbow’s mineral rights.
It also signed agreements with Mineral Exploration and Tregothnan Estates, effectively sewing up some 30,000ha of the county for the largest, single, unified mineral exploration programme in Cornwall’s history.
While gaining the rights to explore this land for lithium and geothermal energy should be commended, no-one will put money into the venture without being convinced these reported lithium occurrences can form the basis for an economically-viable business.
This is where the company is looking to Nevada’s Clayton Valley, which hosts North America’s only operating lithium brine operation, for the nearest analogue in terms of geology and processing.
Wrathall said on the former: “In Nevada, you have saline solutions reacting with igneous rocks, stripping out the mica”, which is similar to what has been happening underground in Cornwall, albeit without the same disolving process.
On the latter, Pure Energy Minerals’ (CN:PE) development plan is a key touchstone. The Toronto-listed junior has partnered with Tenova Bateman Technologies (TBT) to test out the technology provider’s patented three-stage lithium production technology for its CVS project in Clayton Valley.
A mini pilot plant is currently testing out the technology inIsrael with the explorer hoping to expand the results into a full-scale plant down the line.
“Who knows what the cost curve is going to look like in 10 years’ time?”
Involving the removal of calcium and magnesium in stage one, it recovers lithium into a concentrated solution using solvent extraction in stage two, before this is converted into a high-purity lithium hydroxide solution via electrolysis and subsequently crystallised into a battery-grade hydroxide product.
Wrathall believes such technology, which can treat brines “right down to 20 parts per million [0.002% Li2O]”, could be a revelation in the lithium industry. Evidently, his own project is relying on it.
This is where time may be on his side. It is highly unlikely any lithium product will come out of Cornish Lithium for at least five years, by which point all of the kinks in the TBT technology could have been ironed out.
At the same time, Wrathall is expecting electric-car demand to have gone “through the roof” by this point, adding consumption is already running ahead of conservative expectations.
Even though quite a buzz has been made in southwest England about the company’s plans, this enthusiasm needs tempering. Many hopes and expectations have to turn into realities in an appropriate sequence for the plan to prove successful.
Wrathall said: “Who knows what the cost curve is going to look like in 10 years’ time?”
No one knows the answer, but what one can gauge is that Cornish Lithium is not going to be in the first quartile. Having to drill at least 400m down to access these hot spring brines will cost money, while any new extraction and processing technology is expensive.
The lithium may come with low amounts of magnesium and potassium relative to Chile and Nevada, according to Wrathall, while cheap geothermal energy, which it is exploring for alongside the lithium, should help, but the all-in cost is still unlikely to match or better its brine-producing peers in the Americas.
This is why Wrathall is keen to push the idea of this being a “British” story, one that could be supported by government as part of an industry it could become a world leader in.
Jaguar Land Rover is keen on building electric cars in the country, while Dyson is ramping up production of lithium batteries, he said, which could bode well for an integrated supply chain.
The company’s brief interactions with government have so far been under strict confidentiality, but the success of the project is evidently contingent on getting Whitehall politicians on board in a major way.
In a post-Brexit world where the government is looking to diversify away from the financial services sector, it is easy to see the appeal of a green and clean industry such as electric cars and power storage with a captive lithium supply.
This opinion will be put to the test in the not-too-distant future. Now Cornish Lithium has the land agreements signed, it is hoping to raise £5 million (US$6.18 million) for exploration. This should give the company enough cash for 18 months of work that could lead to the location of its first test wells.
The experience has already “been a great voyage of discovery” for Wrathall. He, and many in Cornwall, are hopeful the voyage is only just beginning.