Lithium is in the spotlight because it is essential in the production of Electric Vehicle (EV) batteries. Demand is expected to quadruple by 2030 and deposits around the world are being evaluated, including in UK.
Lithium is one of the lightest elements with an atomic number of 3. It is the 33rd most abundant element in the earths’ crust at about 20 parts per million (ppm) by weight. It is the lightest metal and the lightest solid element. Lithium was one of the first elements and the first metal to be created through the process of nucleosynthesis in the minutes after the Big Bang.
Lithium never occurs freely in nature, but only in compounds. Granitic pegmatites provide the greatest abundance of lithium-containing minerals, and were historically the main source of lithium. Due to its solubility lithium is commonly obtained from geothermal brines.
Accessible, high-quality lithium from brines is currently largely concentrated in a few Andean countries, primarily Bolivia and Chile, although Bolivia is not yet exporting lithium on an industrial scale. Lithium recovery from geothermal brines involves drilling a hole and pumping brine to the surface. That brine is then left to evaporate for months until the lithium content is approximately 6% at which point it is suitable for further processing.
In 2022, Australia, which produces its lithium from hard rock mines, rather than brines, had an estimated production of just over 60,000 metric tonnes. Chile and China ranked second and third, with lithium production of 39,000 and 19,000 metric tonnes, respectively.
Lithium in UK
Current mineral exploration and development is looking into the possibility of environmentally sustainable extraction of lithium from hot geothermal brines in the historic mining district of the granites of Cornwall, UK where geothermal energy may also be recovered. There are currently four companies exploring for lithium and other metals in Cornwall, namely British Lithium, Cornish Lithium, Cornish Tin and Tungsten West.
Lithium and its compounds have several industrial applications, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, lithium grease lubricants, flux additives for iron, steel and aluminium production. However Lithium converts chemical energy into electrical energy very efficiently. It is therefore projected that rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have the highest potential for future energy storage systems. Lithium is therefore in high demand especially to power personal electronic goods like mobile phones, energy storage systems and of course EVs.
Lithium in Cornwall
The CEO of British Lithium is reported to have told BBC’s Countryfile in a recent programme that the company expects to have a processing plant capable of producing 20,000 tonnes of lithium a year operating in the “next three or four years”. If the UK produces a million electric vehicles (EVs ) by that stage 50,000 tonnes of lithium will be required for battery production.
It perhaps should be pointed out that, whilst EVs are emission free on the road, their batteries are not sources of electricity but storage devices and as such need to be charged from electricity generated by other means.
Our already creaking UK electricity grid is heavily dependent on natural gas, a fossil fuel which has its own attendant greenhouse gas emissions. EVs may only be transferring the emissions from the exhaust pipe back to power station. In the extreme, EVs could even be charged from diesel generators, as was reportedly the case at last year’s Glastonbury festival.
EU Critical Raw Materials Act 2023
The European Union (EU) has announced proposed legislation to “… ensure the EU’s access to a secure, diversified, affordable and sustainable supply of critical raw materials”. It aims to protect external and domestic supply of what it considers Critical Raw Materials (CRMs).
These are considered critical not only because of their scarcity but also because of their importance to “key sectors in the European economy”, which, in the case of lithium, includes consumer electronics, electrical back up storage and EVs. The latter two are important in electricity provision, the energy crisis and the search for net zero. They may also be considered critical because of a perceived high supply risk and the lack of potential substitutes.
Lithium was on the previous list of EU CRMs produced in 2020 and is still on the updated list. Amongst the measures reported to being considered to protect European supplies of CRMs are:
- Common bulk purchasing arrangements.
- Changes to European planning laws for mining and processing projects for CRMs
- Promotion of a more sympathetic view of CRM mining projects, and mining generally, to general public.
Serbia is not currently an EU country but is seeking membership, it has been granted ‘applicant status’ and is hoping to become a member in the next couple of years. Early in 2022 the Serbian Government, following large scale public protests revoked the licences previously awarded to the mining company Rio Tinto, for the $2.4bn Jardar lithium project in Serbia. How is this to be reconciled with the EUs CRM approach?
It is worth adding that the UK has its own Critical Minerals list from the British Geological Survey (BGS) Report, UK criticality assessment of technology critical minerals and metals, commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in 2021. The report states that materials:
“… were assessed for their potential criticality to the UK economy in terms of their global supply risk and the UK economic vulnerability to such a disruption”.
Lithium is classed as having “elevated to high criticality”.
Lithium replacement alternative
A recent development, reported in Science Daily, may have come up with alternative to lithium ion batteries. It combines chitin, found in the shells of crustaceans like crabs and lobsters, with zinc to power batteries. The claim is that “… this battery can be recharged at least 1,000 times and can biodegrade or be recycled …”. On the face of it this all sounds too good to be true. Could the catering industry possibly provide enough chitin in their waste for any commercial or practical application? The news report includes a caveat:
“When you develop new materials for battery technologies there tends to be a significant gap between promising lab results and demonstrable and scalable developments”
One thing is certain though – there will be a massive demand for lithium for the foreseeable future. And if UK can satisfy some of this demand the country will benefit.