As the world transitions to a decarbonised economy and away from our reliance on fossil fuels, batteries will play a vital role: powering electric cars and storing renewable energy at grid scale. As the lightest metal, and with its high charge density, lithium is a key component of many battery technologies. In fact, Volkswagen refer to it as “the irreplaceable element of the electric era”.
Europe is set to become the second largest consumer of lithium after China as the region transitions to electric vehicles and renewable energy. Europe currently produces no battery grade lithium and is thus entirely reliant on imports.
Sustainable Local Production
Lithium supply is currently dominated by primary production from South America and Australia, with China dominating the refining market for battery grade chemicals. This is an issue of growing concern as currently Europe has no domestic supply of lithium – the one metal that is of vital importance in battery technology.
With the supply chain of raw materials coming under increasing scrutiny regarding sustainability it is now more important than ever that the raw materials needed to power this energy transition, to help combat climate change, are produced in a sustainable and low carbon manner. This is of great concern to vehicle manufacturers in Europe given the likely introduction of “Battery Passports” which will detail the CO2 impact and sustainability of all critical metals in a battery pack. Such concerns are also of great concern in the UK, especially following the disruption to global supply chains which has been caused by the outbreak of Covid-19.
Cornwall is underlain by hot, lithium-enriched granite rocks. The potential to extract lithium and geothermal energy from lithium-enriched geothermal waters which circulate naturally represents a major opportunity for Cornwall and the UK.
During 2019 two deep holes (to 5km and 2km) were successfully drilled at the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Plant by Geothermal Engineering Limited to demonstrate the potential to extract geothermal water from deep beneath the surface of Cornwall. These geothermal waters will be pumped up and used to generate electrical power. The geological potential to replicate this exists across the County.
Cornish Lithium recently completed two shallow drill holes in central Cornwall which encountered lithium-enriched geothermal waters. Cornish Lithium believes that newly developed technology offers the chance to extract lithium from these waters, thus creating a major new industry for Cornwall.
Direct Lithium Extraction
Lithium will be extracted from the geothermal waters using Direct Lithium Extraction (‘DLE’) technology. DLE technology extracts just the lithium compounds from the water, using filters, ion exchange or membranes, and then the remaining water is reinjected back to depth via boreholes – making it a very environmentally-responsible process. By combining this with geothermal energy production from the same waters, the opportunity exists for the lithium produced to be net zero carbon.