Green recovery: Geothermal lithium recovery plant in Cornwall secures Government funding

The UK Government has awarded a share of its Getting Building Funds - designed to support infrastructure in the wake of lockdown - to a project developing a geothermal recovery plant that will extract lithium for use in the electric vehicle (EV) sector.

Green recovery: Geothermal lithium recovery plant in Cornwall secures Government funding

Cornwall is beginning to see a resurgence of its mining industry. Image: Cornish Lithium 

Being jointly run by Cornish Lithium and Geothermal Engineering Ltd (GEL), the project will pilot an innovative lithium extraction method which purports to produce no carbon emissions. The method replaces fossil fuel energy typically used in extraction with renewables and omits the need for evaporation, instead using nanofiltration to extract lithium compounds from water. Once the lithium is extracted, the water can be returned using injection boreholes.

Two deep wells have been drilled into geothermal waters at the United Downs Industrial Estate, near Redruth, to facilitate the process. Granite rocks under the land there are rich in lithium and heat. Similar methods have been used successfully at projects in the US, New Zealand and Scandinavia, and it is hoped that a UK roll-out could minimise the environmental footprint of the nation’s growing EV battery sector.

Britishvolt is notably preparing to build a 30 GWh Gigafactory and co-located solar farm on 80 hectares of land in Bro Tathan, South Wales.

Cornish Lithium’s founder and chief executive Jeremy Wrathall said that the completion of the new pilot plant, which is classed as ‘shovel-ready’, will enable the project partners to “fast-track similar projects in other locations across Cornwall”.

GEL’s managing director Ryan Law added: “We have made significant strides in establishing the UK’s first deep geothermal power plant in the UK. The possibility of developing future sites that include co-production of lithium extraction is very exciting and a great opportunity for both companies and Cornwall as a whole.”

Elsewhere in Cornwall, geothermal wells are being sunk beneath former clay quarries near the Eden Project. Energy from the project will be supplied to the Project’s biomes and offices for the first time later this year and, in 2023, will also be made available to the local community.  

More sustainable materials

For all the decarbonisation benefits it provides to the energy and transport industries, lithium – when extracted using traditional methods – bares a high environmental and social footprint.

Because traditional extraction methods rely on evaporation, the lithium industry has been repeatedly linked to decreasing water access in places such as Bolivia, Chile and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Water contamination incidents have also occurred and, while lithium may enable the end-user to shift away from fossil fuels, extraction processes often rely on high-carbon energy.

These problems are compounded by the fact that circular economy progress for lithium has been comparatively slow. According to Friends of the Earth, only 5% of lithium-ion batteries put on the European market annually are reused or recycled.

The UK Government recently launched an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on critical minerals. At the launch, Trade and Industry minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “Industry must have confidence that it can access the necessary raw materials to move towards sustainable low-carbon markets…”.

In the business sphere, a collaborative initiative aimed at tackling the climate and human impact of battery material supply chains has been forged by the World Economic Forum, BMW, Volvo and Audi.

Despite the high impacts of their supply chains, EVs do ultimately produce less emissions throughout their lifecycle than vehicles with internal combustion engines, analysis from Carbon Brief has concluded.

Sarah George

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