Geothermal energy could transform lithium supply

The South West of England is famous for its dramatic coastline, green countryside and fresh seafood. If all goes as planned, another string could be added to the arc of the region over the next few years: the extraction of lithium.

In Cornwall County, efforts are underway to tap into the region’s natural resources and establish an industry that could one day both produce renewable energy and establish a local source of lithium.

Besides its use in cell phones, computers, tablets and a host of other gadgets synonymous with modern life, lithium is crucial for electric vehicles and battery storage, two technologies that have a big role to play in the planet’s transition to a low and zero emissions future. .

Examples of how this nascent sector could progress over the next few years include Geothermal Engineering Ltd, a company based near the Cornish town of Redruth specializing in the development and operation of geothermal projects.

Alongside its planned renewable energy operations, GEL is also working on a pilot project centered on the extraction of lithium from geothermal waters. It is a collaboration with another company, Cornish Lithium, through a joint venture called GeoCubed.

“The aim is to demonstrate that lithium hydroxide, a key component of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, can be produced in Cornwall from natural geothermal water with a zero net carbon footprint,” says GEL. .

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The project in Cornwall focuses on direct lithium mining, or DLE. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the technologies behind DLE “can be broadly grouped into three main categories: adsorption using porous materials that enable lithium binding, lithium exchange, ions and solvent extraction”.

Although there is excitement about its potential, NREL warns that it “remains a difficult task” to scale the above methods to what it calls “full production capacity”.

“For example, developing a solid material that only binds lithium is a huge challenge in geothermal brine which contains many minerals and metals,” he says.

“Irreplaceable” for a green transition

Projects like the one in Cornwall come at a time when concerns about sustainability and ESG are growing. The security of global supply chains is another issue, especially when the vast majority of lithium production is currently dominated by countries like Chile, China, Australia and Argentina.

In this context, the commercialization of less intensive, more local and easily accessible means of supplying lithium could be extremely important in the future.

Major economies and automakers are also developing plans to increase the number of electric vehicles on our roads. At the same time, the pressure to expand renewable energy capacity shows no signs of letting up.

Julia Poliscanova is Senior Director of Electric Mobility at Transport & Environment, a campaign group headquartered in Brussels. Speaking to CNBC, she described lithium as “irreplaceable for all of our green transitions.”

Regarding the sustainable supply of lithium and other materials, Poliscanova said that “in the medium to long term, it is clear that the vast majority must come from circular business models, including recycling.”

She noted that there would be “really immense growth and demand” over the next few decades. This would require, in the short and medium term, new extraction techniques.

Expanding on his point, Poliscanova said the majority of the lithium that will be used in 2030 has yet to be extracted.

“That’s where geothermal lithium comes in,” she said, “because the new lithium, the new resources that we…need, it has to be mined sustainably and have the least amount of energy. ‘impact on the environment and our communities’.

‘How can we get him out?’

GeoCubed’s £4 million ($5.46 million) pilot plant will focus on a range of direct lithium mining technologies. The overall goal is to eventually develop a commercial power plant under GEL’s United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project.

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In an interview with CNBC, Ryan Law, Founder and CEO of GEL, described the opportunity his company was looking to tap into. Beneath its surface, Cornwall is home to many granitic rocks which, in turn, have a high lithium content, Law explained.

“The combination of lithium-rich granite rock and hot water – hot water can absorb more lithium – means that the water we bring to the surface at United Downs to run our power plant has lithium content. very high,” he said. .

“The next step is: how do we get him out? Law went on to say. “And that’s what we looked at in conjunction with a number of partners.”

Change of hours

GEL is one of many companies looking to develop facilities focused on direct lithium extraction. Alongside GeoCubed, Cornish Lithium is also working on a number of other projects.

Elsewhere, as of April 2021, listed in Australia Vulcan Energy Resources said its direct lithium extraction pilot plant, located in Germany’s Upper Rhine Valley, has started operations.

In the United States in November, a company called Controlled Thermal Resources announced that its drilling program on the Hell’s Kitchen Lithium and Power project in California had begun.

At the time, CEO Rod Colwell said the company was “on schedule to deliver the project’s first 50MW of baseload renewable energy in late 2023 and approximately 20,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide in 2024”.

The Hell’s Kitchen project is attracting the attention of some major players. Last summer, General Motors said it had “agreed to form a strategic investment and business collaboration with Controlled Thermal Resources to secure local, low-cost lithium.”

“As the first investor, GM will have the first rights to the lithium produced by the first stage of the Hell’s Kitchen project, including an option for a multi-year relationship,” the automaker later added.

change of the sea

The above developments are in various stages of progress, but if they are able to produce at scale, it could mean a sea change in the way lithium is harvested.

According to NREL, the majority of lithium comes from “open pit or saltwater mines containing lithium under salt pans.”

He describes the latter as involving salt water that contains lithium “pumped into large pools where it evaporates under the sun.”

The environmental effects of such processes can be significant. The NREL says surface mining and the salt pan method “can lead to land destruction, potential contamination and high water consumption, especially in areas that are already suffering from drought and desertification.” . He adds that they also take up a significant amount of space.

DLE, on the other hand, enables “a more sustainable lithium supply, including the use of geothermal energy as a renewable energy source for production”.

This image shows Geothermal Engineering Ltd’s proof-of-concept power station at the United Downs industrial estate in Cornwall, England.

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Transport & Environment’s Poliscanova then highlighted the importance of geothermal lithium as a complement to recycling efforts and ideas about a circular economy. Recycling, she later said, should be the “number one priority”.

Recycling indeed seems to have a key role to play in the future, especially in the electric vehicle sector. by Elon Musk Tesla, for example, claims that all of its discarded lithium-ion batteries are recycled.

And in November, Swedish battery company Northvolt said it had produced its first battery cell with what it described as “100% recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt”.

Go forward

Back in Cornwall, the GeoCubed project continues. Earlier this month it said it chose a firm called Ross-shire Engineering to provide engineering, procurement, construction and commissioning, or EPCC, support for its pilot plant. .

His statement also referred to an electric submersible pump test undertaken by GEL in August 2021, which resulted in the collection of a “global sample of geothermal water”.

GeoCubed said the lithium concentration levels in the sample were “encouraging” and added that “other key by-products such as cesium, rubidium and potassium were found to be at elevated levels.”

If all goes as planned, the pilot plant will be commissioned by the end of March this year.

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