A new business deal promises to help develop the UK’s largest deposit of lithium. This is, of course, good for cleantech business in the UK and beyond, but before I get to the details on the deal, let’s talk about why this is also good for free countries transitioning to EVs.
The Security Of Mineral Supplies Is Vital For The Future Of EVs
Rare earth minerals, also known as rare earth elements (REEs), are a group of 17 chemically similar metallic elements found in the Earth’s crust. These include scandium (Sc), yttrium (Y), and the 15 lanthanide elements (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium). Despite their name, these elements are not actually scarce. Rather, the name comes from the fact that they were initially discovered in rare minerals.
Rare earth minerals are crucial in modern technology, used in electronics, renewable energy, aerospace, defense, and medical industries. With unique magnetic, catalytic, and luminescent properties, they are essential for high-tech devices like smartphones, electric vehicles, wind turbines, and missile guidance systems.
But, when it comes to EVs, these minerals wouldn’t do very well by themselves. They’re good for things like motors, but you need batteries to power the motors. The best batteries we’ve been able to come up with so far and build in massive numbers use a lithium-ion chemistry. We also need things like nickel and/or cobalt, among other minerals.
The extraction and processing of rare earth minerals pose challenges due to their geochemical properties. These elements commonly coexist in mineral deposits and have similar chemical characteristics, making separation difficult. As a result, mining and refining processes for rare earth minerals are complex, time-consuming, and costly, leading to limited supply and high market value.
Lithium isn’t as challenging, but it tends to require access to land and its own supply chain to refine and turn into useful things like battery cells. Environmental concerns, land ownership, existing land uses, the complexities of state, local, and tribal governing, and many other things mean lithium isn’t just sitting there waiting to be picked up and used. So, we’re scrambling to find sources, put them into production, and establish supply chains.
At present, China is the largest producer and exporter of rare earth minerals because it got a head start compared to western countries and some of its neighbors, leading to concerns about supply chain security. Dependent countries face risks, as China has used rare earth supply to exert pressure in disputes. To reduce dependency, efforts are underway to explore new sources and develop alternative technologies.
For lithium, the situation isn’t as bad, with Australia and Chile being big suppliers. But, we have to compete with China for these minerals and the logistics of shipping mean vulnerability and extra cost. The closer we can get lithium sources (and rare earths) to production facilities, the better. For geopolitical risks, it’s also good to get as many aspects of production, from the mine to the battery plants, on friendly territory.
Developing The UK’s Biggest Lithium Deposits
Now that we’ve reviewed why it’s urgent we get more lithium mining and refining going, let’s look at an effort to make the UK more self-sufficient on this.
Imerys, a big player in mineral-based specialty solutions, has acquired an 80% stake in British Lithium. British Lithium has developed a processing route to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate from Cornish granite. This transaction combines Imerys’ expertise in mining, infrastructure in Cornwall, R&D, process development capabilities, and lithium mineral resources with British Lithium’s bespoke technology and state-of-the-art lithium pilot plant. The plant recently demonstrated the production of battery-grade lithium carbonate.
“This acquisition is a milestone in Imerys’ journey to becoming a key partner in the energy transition. Building on our recent investment in the EMILI Project in France, we are uniquely placed to become a leading supplier of lithium in the UK and Europe,” said Alessandro Dazza, CEO of Imerys. “We look forward to unlocking the joint potential of British Lithium and Imerys to make Cornwall a successful lithium hub, building on its centuries-old mining heritage.”
Since 2017, British Lithium has conducted drilling and exploration on Imerys-owned land in Cornwall. It has developed a unique process and pilot plant to produce lithium carbonate suitable for EV batteries. Financial support for its endeavors was provided by Innovate UK, the national innovation agency of the UK, and the Automotive Transformation Fund, a funding program aimed at supporting the electrification of vehicles and their supply chains in the country.
After drilling and defining resources, inferred mineral resources are estimated at 161 million tonnes with a 0.54% lithium oxide grade^1^. These resources provide confidence to target a mine life exceeding 30 years, producing 20,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent per year. This could potentially supply enough for 500,000 electric vehicles annually by the end of the decade. It is projected to meet about two-thirds of Britain’s battery demand by 2030, when all UK car manufacturers transition to electric vehicles.
The partnership will benefit from Imerys’ existing mining footprint in Cornwall, experienced teams, solid infrastructure, and lithium expertise developed through its EMILI project in France. Imerys is playing its part in the energy transition by launching a project to mine lithium in France. The mine will adhere to the highest social and environmental standards, following the IRMA Standard.
The UK government has approved the transaction under the National Security Investment Act protocol. This venture aims to reduce the UK’s and Europe’s reliance on critical raw material imports, contributing to the achievement of climate change targets in Europe and Britain. Additionally, it aims to establish the first fully integrated regional electric vehicle value chain. Combining this with the EMILI project in France would position Imerys as the largest integrated lithium producer in Europe, accounting for over 20% of the projected European lithium output by 2030.
According to the company, the project will create new job opportunities and promote economic growth in Cornwall. Imerys’ aims to reinforce their “strong commitment” to the UK solidify its position as a key contributor to the Cornish economy with this deal. Currently, the Group employs 1,100 people across the UK, with 830 based in Cornwall. This includes five world-class open-pit mine sites in Cornwall and Devon. The project will also leverage British Lithium’s entrepreneurial spirit and dedicated team.
“This joint venture between Imerys and British Lithium will strengthen our domestic supply of critical minerals, which is vitally important as we seek to grow the UK’s advanced manufacturing industry and help create the jobs of the future.” said Kemi BadenochBusiness and Trade Secretary. “This partnership shows again that the UK remains an attractive destination for international investment and will boost economic prosperity, support green industries, and bolster our energy security – not only in Cornwall, but right across the UK.”
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