How UKs bright hopes of a Lithium highway hit the buffers
This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
The announcement of the death of John Goodenough at 100, the Nobel prizewinning scientist co-credited with developing the lithium-ion battery in the mid-1980s, and the last rites administered to Cornish Lithium Plc ironically both arrived on the same day.
Only weeks before, it had been said that Tata was to invest in battery-making, near where I live in Bridgwater in Somerset.
Perhaps it was only in my mind that that there was the prospect of a glorious green corridor – one stretching up the A30 from Cornwall, passing my house near Bridgwater on the M5 and pushing on to Jaguar Land Rover off the M6.
Not just an inventor, Goodenough was concerned for the wellbeing of the planet. In The Times obituary on June 27th 2023, he was quoted as saying, ‘I don’t believe in the throwaway society, I think we need to preserve Mother Earth’.
In Chile, where most of the world’s Lithium comes from, they call Mother Earth Pachamama - the spirit who must be celebrated by spilling beer on the ground before you raise the glass to your lips.
Tragic then, to read in the business section of the same paper ‘Cornish Lithium has a month to raise £10m or face going bust’.
The two events are unrelated, you might say…
But Goodenough’s death highlights lithium mining at a crossroads, one in which its known benefits are suspended in balance with, and in opposition to, the green credentials that have made the element so universally adopted.
Just two facts will assist. In the high Atacama, where lithium brines are mined, it takes 2 million litres of fresh water to make 100mt of Lithium (LCE – lithium carbonate equivalent). No one yet knows, because it has not been measured, what the effect of this removal of fresh water from the fragile environment will be. Meanwhile, the amount of carbon required to mine and transport hard rock spodumene from Australia similarly dents lithium’s green credentials.
The question is not so much whether lithium can be considered green but whether we have the wit to make it thus.
Hence, the lost hopes for Cornwall.
What particularly recommended Cornish Lithium Plc to me was the ground-breaking idea they had conceived for the way they were going to do the job. Lithium-rich waters from 2km-5km below the granite of Cornwall, heated by the rocks at those depths, would be brought to the surface, at one and the same time recovering lithium via their direct lithium extraction method and converting the heat from the said water into electricity for the community.
If there was any greener method of mining than this, I had not heard of it. A mine that could use its own energy to power its production and use the leftovers for the wider world.
No other Lithium mine would have come near it in terms of green.
But Cornish Lithium has more to contend with than the hard rock in the region – it was the rock-hard absence of sufficient state support; the element not in the periodic table that could have made the difference as to whether Britain became both a mining tech leader and domestic producer of lithium rather than merely an importer adding to the trade deficit.
The history of lithium, which you may read about if you wish, in Lukasz Bednarski’s book, handily entitled Lithium (Published in 2021 by Hurst & Co, London), relates starkly how Chinese policy worked on different presumptions. As far back as Deng Xiao Ping, China had identified lithium as a material that could mitigate pollution, with early steadfast state support making giants out of private entities – Tianqi and Ganfeng. These were two companies started by scientists and entrepreneurs. They developed because China targeted security of resources and independence of supply chain above a free market loath to take long term risk. Today, both companies are market leaders dominating world lithium output; their overseas investments integrated right through to the vehicle.
And in UK? In a region with the world-renowned Camborne School of Mines on its doorstep, a history of mining going back to the bronze age, in a stable country with high quality scientific students, and a ready market to boot, a new job-creating green industry will remain untapped.
Sadly, it looks as if the long and winding road that leads to your door in the UK will not be paved with domestically produced lithium – although it certainly could. I wonder what Prof Goodenough would have had to say about it?