Lithium – a sustainable opportunity to power our electric vehicles

Lithium is a naturally occurring metal found on almost every continent, but the top five producers of lithium are Australia, Chile, China, Argentina and Zimbabwe.

Imports from these countries can have issues related to human rights or carbon footprint because of the transportation distances involved.  Lithium is shipped from these countries to China for processing into battery grade lithium. Once this process is complete, batteries are then sent to Europe to be installed in electric vehicles.

The UK currently produces no lithium onshore, because of this the carbon footprint of delivering lithium-ion batteries is a significant source of carbon emissions. Demand for lithium is expected to boom in the coming years on the back of the shift to electric vehicles.

Following a discovery in Cornwall, this may be about to change…

A geothermal power plant in the UK has discovered the highest concentration of lithium ever found in geothermal fluid, opening the door to a new business model for the renewable energy source.

“It’s really become a game-changer for the industry to be able to say we don’t just produce power, we don’t just produce heat – we will produce lithium as well, particularly zero carbon lithium,” the founder of Geothermal Energy Ltd Ryan Law told EURACTIV.

The Cornwall-based company has plans for four new geothermal sites across the county, which together will power 45,000 homes. Each plant is expected to take 18 months to complete, and all are expected to be running by 2026.

Once these are online, the company expects to extract 4,000 tonnes of lithium annually, with United Downs – the geothermal plant already constructed – possibly producing 1,500 tonnes by the end of 2023, depending on the technology.

Geothermal power

Geothermal power is responsible for only a fraction of renewable energy used in Europe despite being accessible in some form across most of the continent. That is partly because it has extremely high start-up costs, making it a less attractive investment.

But now the technology is seeing more interest from investors, partly driven by the prospect of lithium extraction.

Lithium is brought to the surface by geothermal fluid. In the case of the Cornish plant, this is water from an underground reservoir that is pumped between two wells to bring the heat to the surface. The water can reach temperatures of almost 200°C, but is under such pressure that it remains a liquid. At this high temperature, it is very good at absorbing minerals, like lithium, from the rocks around it.

The metal to keep Europe on the road

As part of its ambition to hit net zero emissions by 2050, the UK plans to end sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and rule out sales of new hybrids by 2035. The European Union will soon adopt policies to introduce traceability into the supply chains of lithium batteries meaning manufacturers will have to sign agreements disclosing how they source their low carbon lithium, it is likely the UK will follow.

The UK and Europe too is expected to see a huge increase in demand for lithium, with a stated aim to create a fleet of 30 million electric vehicles by 2030.

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