UK's first lithium mine to produce 'enough to equip 500,000 electric vehicles a year'

The UK's first lithium mine is going to be established in Cornwall with the aim of powering 500,000 electric vehicles a year. ITV News' Joel Hills reports

Cornwall is blessed.

Lithium is everywhere, but there are very few places in the world with the vital geology where it can be successfully extracted.

In a China Clay pit in St Austell, the scramble for one of the world’s most economically precious minerals is underway.

Imerys, a French mineral processing company, has just announced plans to invest more than 600 million Euros (£520m) in a joint venture with British Lithium to develop the UK’s first commercial lithium mine.

British Lithium has been carrying out drilling and exploration with on the Imerys-owned site since 2017.

It now says it has developed the technology that will enable the separation of battery-grade lithium from the Cornish granite where it has formed over millions of years.

The deposits at St Austell are estimated at 161 million tonnes and will be extracted over the next 30 years.

The aim is to be producing 20,000 tonnes a year by 2030 - “potentially enough to equip 500,000 electrical vehicles a year”.

The project has received financial support from the government’s Automotive Transformation Fund, although neither the government nor the company will say how much funding has been provided.

'The transition to electric vehicles is good for the environment,' says Kemi Badenoch

“This is great news for our car industry... It's great news for Cornwall in particular,” says Business and Trade Secretary, Kemi Badenoch.

“You're building up the supply chain for the transition to electric vehicles.”

Lithium mining, like all mining, carries risk.

Elsewhere in the world it has proved highly water intensive, the chemical waste produced during processing is hazardous. 

Imerys promises “the highest social and environmental standards”.

Badenoch insists the industry will be closely regulated - she points out the UK is “trying to achieve Net Zero” and that “there will be trade-offs”.

Lithium is classed as a critical metal, one of the several the world will need in greater abundance if we are to successfully wean ourselves off our dependence on fossil fuels.

Cornish Lithium Ltd are drilling for lithium in former china clay pits near St Austell. Credit: ITV West Country

Energy-dense and lightweight, lithium is the consistent battery component that industry has converged on.

“The lithium ion battery is the platform technology for the entire energy transition,” explains Andrew Miller, Chief Operating Officer at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

“Without plentiful and affordable energy storage, not only will we be unable to electrify transportation, but switching the energy generation mix to cleaner alternatives will remain a pipe dream”.

Around the world, companies and governments are rushing to secure vital supplies of lithium, build processing capacity and nurture industries capable of producing batteries, not least for electric vehicles.

Benchmark estimates that $51 billion (£40 billion) will need to be invested globally by 2030 in the extraction of lithium to keep up with demand.

Cylinders of lithium are extracted from the ground before being examined by geologists. Credit: ITV West Country

It’s an arms-race of sorts and Britain finds itself out-gunned and playing catch-up.

“Asia is the home of the lithium ion battery industry and China has established itself as the dominant player on the global stage,” says Andrew Miller.

”The US - which once led efforts to scale battery production - is stepping up efforts to regain market share, particularly in the light of the inflation reduction act, which has left Europe trailing the pack, and the UK even further adrift."

St Austell, then, is only a step in the right direction but it is a big step none-the-less.

The UK is never going to be able to mine lithium on the scale that Australia does - which accounts for half of global production - but it makes sense to be as self-sufficient as possible.

The experience of the last few years has demonstrated that diplomatic relations with China can chill.

The pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have shown how fragile global supply chains can be - just ask any company which relies on semi-conductors.

Very specifically, the future of our car industry depends on the UK’s ability to exploit its mineral deposits and establish “gigafactories”, which, post-Brexit, are essential for British-assembled electric cars to retain tariff-free access to the EU.

35 gigafactories are planned in Europe by 2035 but only three of those are in the UK.

Of those, British Volt went bust earlier this year and a proposed site in Coventry has failed to attract investors.

But as one Cornish firm prepares for full lithium production, another is finding it harder to attract investment. 

In its annual accounts, which were published on the Companies House website last week, Cornish Lithium revealed the business may struggle to continue unless it raises £10 million by next month.

The company’s CEO and founder, Jeremy Wrathall, has since clarified that he is “confident” about the future and promised he will be “updating our shareholders regarding funding very soon”.

Without the funding, the accounts state that “a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the group’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

Cornish Lithium, which also operates in St Austell, hopes to produce the metal from 2026.

In the accounts, the company’ chair, Ian Cockerill, criticises the government’s “lack of an industrial strategy” and points out that the colossal subsidies on offer in the United States (totalling $369 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act) and the European Union to develop battery production and supply chains means the UK is struggling to compete. 

“The UK is currently being left behind in this global race to secure the industries that will drive the energy transition,” Cockerill writes. 

This morning, in Cornwall, the fightback began.

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