From the New Power archive: Removing the lithium barrier

In the April issue of New Power Report we looked at one of the concerns regularly expressed regarding the switch to electricity – and batteries – to fuel cars and large-scale storage: the supply of lithium.

Demand is expected to triple by 2030 and most of the mineral has been supplied from mines in Australia (43% of the total in 2017), Chile (33%) and Argentina (13%). China supplied 7% of the total and there were small amounts from the USA, Zimbabwe, Brazil and Portugal. But
initiatives show that new sources are opening up as demand grows. Last year, new Australian mines opened up and the Financial Times credits a 17% reduction in lithium prices in 2018 to those new mines.

Currently there are two main ways of extracting lithium: hard rock mining (used in Australia and the USA) and extracting it from naturally occurring brines.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy produces lithium in small amounts as a by-product of its geothermal energy projects its Salton Sea geothermal area in southern California. It had been suggested that more extraction was possible, but in a recent statement it said: “Berkshire Hathaway Energy, through its affiliate BHE Geothermal, processes approximately 1.5 million barrels per day of geothermal brine for purposes of power generation. Although there is approximately 90,000 metric tonnes of lithium carbonate that could be extracted annually from this brine, today there is no extraction occurring and there have been no definitive plans announced to do so.”

Meanwhile, retrieving lithium from batteries that have reached the end of their useful lifetime has also attracted funding. In January, US energy secretary Rick Perry launched a Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize and a battery recycling R&D centre intended to recover lithium and another useful metal, cobalt, from batteries used for electronics, defence, energy storage and transport.

The USA has had an eye on the problem of critical metals for some time (as has the EC, see New Power’s article, link below). In December 2017, the president signed an executive order as part of a strategy to “ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical minerals”.

Currently, lithium-ion batteries are collected and recycled at a rate of less than 5% in the USA but the aim is to bring that up to 90%. The battery recycling prize has $5.5 million on offer, and the US will invest $15 million in the recycling centre, led by Argonne National Laboratory along with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Known lithium reserves remain untapped in South America (Bolivia and Argentina) and smaller amounts in Canada and Russia. The largest European reserves are in the Czech Republic and Spain, and there are small deposits in Austria, where exploration is under way. The EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme includes ‘Greenpeg’, which aims to develop innovative exploration toolsets and proprietary technologies in order to secure the sustainable supply of lithium and other critical raw materials for Europe.

As for the UK, Cornwall appears to be a potential source. Brine from geothermal sources was the prompt for a UK company exploring for lithium but it may add hard rock mining to that initiative. Cornish Lithium raised £1 million in 2017 to begin lithium explorations and in January it successfully raised a further £1 million from its existing investors. The company said it was seeking naturally circulating lithium-enriched fluids in bedrock, which often appeared in historic mines as ‘hot springs’. With the new funding it will drill exploratory boreholes to extract samples of lithium bearing brines. But it also said there was potential to use hard rock sources of lithium and other metals. “Cornish Lithium therefore intends to evaluate an integrated approach to both lithium-enriched brines and hard rock projects in Cornwall,” it said.

Note: story updated on 12 June


Further reading

From the archive: Cobalt, lithium, copper … is metal supply a barrier for renewables and batteries?

2 comments for “From the New Power archive: Removing the lithium barrier

  1. Hugh Sharman
    June 14, 2019 at 8:30 AM

    I’m surprised there is no mention of the bombshell advice that the CCC received last week from eminent earth scientists!
    Is it smart to outlaw the IC engine before its replacement can be assured?

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