UK produces first-ever battery grade lithium carbonate in Cornwall

Lithium carbonate has been produced for the first time in Cornwall in southwest England, the Li4UK consortium said this week.

Following an 18-month project, Li4UK confirmed that the purity of the lithium carbonate produced at Cornish Lithium’s Trelavour project Cornwall is “near battery grade,” the consortium said on Monday January 18.

“Li4UK (Securing a Domestic Lithium Supply Chain for the UK), is a consortium that comprises exploration firm Cornish Lithium, mining consultancy Wardell Armstrong International (WAI) and the UK’s Natural History Museum. The consortium is funded by the Faraday Battery Challenge, a £246 million ($359 million) UK investment fund for investigating and developing battery technologies.

“Given the potential that has been established by this project to exploit lithium resources in Cornwall, it is possible that the UK could produce a significant percentage of its lithium demand domestically; thus creating a vertically-integrated supply chain and generating additional value for the UK economy,” Cornish Lithium’s chief executive Jeremy Wrathall said.

“Cornwall also provides access to renewable energy from solar and wind and offers established infrastructure such as rail, road and port facilities – which represent a considerable advantage over other European lithium projects,” he added.

Cornish Lithium plans to become a producer of lithium carbonate on a commercial scale by 2025, the company told Fastmarkets.

On January 6, Cornish Lithium along with Geothermal Engineering Ltd was also awarded £4 million in British Government funding to build a pilot lithium extraction plant and to look for lithium in in the waters off the Cornish coastline.

This project will trial direct lithium extraction which is emerging as an alternative to the conventional processes that are based on increasing the concentration of lithium through solar evaporation in evaporation ponds.

Localized supply chain
Demand for lithium from electric vehicle (EV) sector is expected to increase in line with UK’s new ‘green energy plan’ and the country is ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 – 10 years earlier than previously planned. To support this, the British Government is investing £1.3 billion in a network of electric charging points and will be providing more than £1 billion in subsidies for the purchase of new electric vehicles and for battery production.

At the same time, pressure is mounting for UK to localize battery production.

Following the Brexit free-trade agreement on December 24, all European trade in cars and parts will continue to be free of tariffs, and it will at first be allowed [for cars] to contain up to 70% of material from countries outside the EU or the UK. However, from 1 January 2024 only 50% will be permissible from non-UK/non-EU locations.

“What has been achieved here puts the UK at the forefront of developments in the European battery industry,” according to Ben Simpson, WAI technical director for mineral processing.

“It was crucial for the UK to start looking at domestic sources of battery [raw] materials and [the] production of lithium-ion batteries – from mine to market

There is currently no commercial production of battery grade lithium in Europe. But stringent requirements from car makers attempting to control the sustainability and reliability of their supply chains, coinciding with the development of higher-performance batteries and vehicles with longer driving ranges, is incentivizing investment in sourcing the material within Europe (including the UK).

“One thing that [the trade war between the United States and] China and the supply disruptions [caused by] Covid-19 teach us – combined with companies needing to reduce their carbon footprints – is that having access to local supplies is going to be increasingly important, where it is feasible. As such, we expect local projects… to have an easier path to finance,” the head of base metals and battery research at Fastmarkets William Adams said.

Fastmarkets’ weekly price assessment for lithium carbonate 99.5% Li2CO3 min, battery grade, spot price ddp Europe and US was $7.50-9. per kg on Thursday January 14, up from 7.50-8.50.

Li4UK also said it had produced viable lithium carbonate in Scotland, but did not disclose the location of that project.