Why Does the UK Need a Lithium Supply Chain?
Image: Imerys extraction site in Cornwall, © Imerys Minerals Limited
Addressing an Over-Reliance on Imports
In order to meet future manufacturing demand, a domestic supply of lithium will need to be carefully balanced through mining and a well-established battery recycling industry, data drawn from research carried out by HSSMI as part of the Co-production of Lithium and China Clay in Cornwall (CLiCCC) project has concluded.
Currently, lithium bound for the UK is sourced primarily from countries including Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, USA, Australia, and China. To decrease the UK’s reliance on imported raw materials, establishing a circular economy, and designing products for second life use is essential so that precious metals and minerals can be harvested and recycled.
Industry projections state that from 2030 onwards, the UK will need to produce 50,000 to 60,000 tonnes of lithium-bearing compounds per annum to meet market volumes used for industrial applications, built environment, renewables, energy storage and pharmaceutical uses.
Figure 1: UK demand for raw materials to 2035
Recent research concludes that, in addition to recycled sources, new primary sources, such as those planned through the extraction of Lithium from Cornwall’s geothermal water and the mining of lithium deposits discovered in Cornwall’s granite reserves, could significantly scale up lithium production and boost volumes to directly offset domestic demand from 2025.
Supporting the UK’s Electrification Journey
The UK’s ambition is to be at the forefront of electric vehicle (EV) production and a domestic source of lithium is critical to ensure sustainable growth in the transition to electrification and to meet the Rules of Origin contained within the Brexit trade agreement with the EU.
The lithium extraction market is largely centred around the processing and purification of lithium compounds, such as lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide or lithium sulphate, needed to manufacture batteries used to power electric vehicles (EVs) and consumer electronic devices. Industry experts state that a single electric vehicle with battery capacity ranging from 75 to 100 kWh contains between 10 to 15 kilogrammes of lithium.
In addition to EVs, lithium is an essential mineral used in industrial applications and consumer devices. If you wear glasses, walk on a ceramic floor, or turn on your mobile phone or laptop, you are relying on a supply of lithium, as these everyday devices all use the metal in their manufacturing process. Figure 2 demonstrates how the various derivatives of lithium find their way into their most common applications.
Figure 2: The lithium extraction market, its primary grades, compounds and main market applications
As the market penetration of electric vehicles grows, a. An approach to this is illustrated in the image below. However, to negate our reliance on overseas imports, new and alternative resources will still have to be found. The CLiCCC lithium extraction project aims to find a partial solution from Cornwall’s kaolin mines.
Figure 3: The UK currently relies on imports of lithium and other battery metals, whereas extraction of lithium deposits discovered in Cornwall’s granite reserves, will significantly scale up domestic lithium supply by 2024, reducing future UK reliance on these imported raw materials
Establishing Lithium Extraction in Cornwall
Co-production of Lithium and China Clay in Cornwall (CLiCCC) is a collaborative project undertaken by Cornish Lithium, Imerys and HSSMI, with funding from Innovate UK. The CLiCCC project will assess the potential to produce lithium from waste material produced from both current and historic kaolin operations taking advantage of circular economy practices together with new innovative low carbon processing and extraction technologies.
The project partners are carrying out feasibility studies to advance the efficient extraction and purification of battery grade lithium hydroxide sourced through the co-production of kaolin. There is an early indication that the British mining industry, in tandem with domestic battery recycling operations, has the capacity to meet primary lithium demand in the UK, not just limited to EV batteries, according to anecdotal data and initial studies carried out by lithium mining experts and related industry forums. However, it is too early in the research process to publish verifiable figures or critical mass volumes.
In addition, the CLiCCC project has also identified new market opportunities and supplementary uses for non-lithium wastes and mineral residues from the mining process which are potential raw materials for other industries in a circular economy — these will be covered in a separate blog post.
Future development plans to build full-scale lithium processing plants in Cornwall from 2024 with sufficient domestic capacity to match market demands for primary lithium grades are projected to create a significant number of highly skilled jobs in the County, providing a much-needed boost to Cornwall’s economy, whilst generating future green industry jobs and apprenticeships to upskill local people and the next generation of mining engineers.
The Role of HSSMI
For HSSMI, this project represents an opportunity to work within the minerals extraction industry to leverage our existing knowledge on the electric vehicle battery supply chain. CLiCCC will afford us an opportunity to explore the conversion rate of extraction processes involved in producing lithium-bearing materials to expand our support to UK Gigafactories.
HSSMI are conducting life cycle assessments (LCAs), technology and infrastructure reviews to assess equipment efficiency, performance, overall carbon footprint and the potential to reduce emissions.
HSSMI will perform facility design analysis to assess the viability of repurposing infrastructure and auxiliary facilities, producing a digital demonstrator of a lithium processing plant and its wider supply chain activities.
HSSMI will also develop industrial symbiosis and circular economy offerings aligned to future market development opportunities and downstream value chains, using circular principles as a force for good to assess the local economic, environmental, and social benefits of the project.
Project lead Steve Massey – firstname.lastname@example.org
Project dissemination lead Zane Mezdreija – email@example.com
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