The global importance of lithium as a major component of EV car battery manufacturing can’t be overstated. The problem, however, is that the production sourcing numbers make for eyewatering reading in terms of geopolitical dependency.

While ‘Western-friendly’ Australia produced 55,000 metric tonnes in 2021 – twice that of Chile, three times that of China – it’s an unavoidable reality that the geopolitically less-friendly China remains a significant player on the world stage.

With global supply chains having become frayed, alarm bells have been sounding off as consuming nations scramble to secure supply sources to fill the current supply and demand gap.

Ironically, lithium as a metal isn’t that scarce – global reserves in 2021 amounted to 22 million metric tonnes, with 74% of global end-use earmarked for batteries, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Factor in ongoing exploration, and identified lithium resources have now risen substantially to an estimated 89 million metric tonnes. To put all of this in context, Neil Glover, president of the Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining (IOM3), notes that a typical BEV might contain around 24kg of lithium, 80kg of copper and a tonne of steel, adding that the country that dominates material supply may also be able to control prices or limit exports. China, for example, provides 98% of the EU’s supply of rare earth elements (REE), according to the European Commission. Moreover, supply in this space may be dependent upon a single company, as in the cases of hafnium and strontium supply in the EU, Glover adds, “which is an uncomfortable position for a customer [to be in]”. In addition, extraction may be limited by nature or practicality.

“The importance of securing a robust supply of certain CRMs (critical raw materials) is evident in BEV sourcing, where a large proportion of the value – 50–75% – and embedded energy is in the raw materials, particularly in the battery and power related components,” says Glover.

“Without a transparent or localised supply chain, cells are unlikely to meet rules of origin thresholds to support exports – for example, 80% of UK-manufactured cars are currently exported,” Glover adds. “There is therefore a drive to increase the proportion of the supply chain that is based in the UK to capture more of that value.”

Capturing more value

The UK government has been on the case, though – its Critical Materials Strategy, unveiled in July this year, made a start in terms of adopting a more strategic approach to global producer and supply chain issues.

“It provides a sound analysis of the challenges and explores a broad range of opportunities and interventions that, taken in combination, have significant potential to improve the resiliency of supply chains,” Glover explains.

What this means at the coalface is that the UK’s pockets of mineral wealth need to be exploited with domestic supply chains developed in tandem with more diversified, resilient and transparent global supply chains. Clearly, collaboration will be key.

It also requires the provision of financial support and funding mechanisms, cutting barriers to exploration and extraction, and promoting the UK as a strategic location for refining, midstream materials and manufacturing, according to Glover.

The main issue here is that many of the processes involved – enabling the creation of new supply chains – have yet to be scaled up commercially, which is why many BEV manufacturers would remain beholden to a relatively small base of suppliers over the short to medium term. At the production end of the lithium and BEV supply equation, for example, there is significant activity, with Cornish Lithium and the rival British Lithium looking to exploit substantial reserves of the metal in Cornwall from granite, as well as geothermal brines.

“The presence of lithium in geothermal waters in Cornwall was first identified by Professor Miller of Kings College in 1864 when he sampled and analysed water from a Cornish copper mine,” notes Jeremy Wrathall, founder and CEO of Cornish Lithium. “The process of extracting lithium from geothermal waters in Cornwall involves drilling into naturally occurring fractures beneath the surface and pumping the lithium enriched water to the surface for processing.”

Globally significant

After taking samples back in 2020, from 600m to 5.2km deep, Cornish Lithium reported globally significant concentrations of lithium at 220mg/l with low concentrations of dissolved fluids relative to other geothermal waters in the world. Crucially, ultra-low concentrations of magnesium – which makes processing more expensive – were also reported.

Once the water is at the surface, then the lithium is extracted using Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology, the ‘post-lithium’ water is then re-injected into the ground. The process also allows for heat to be extracted from the water, which can then be used to decarbonise industry or heat homes.

In the meantime, a scoping study funded by the Automotive Transformation Fund (ATF) in Q3 2022 examined the economics of producing battery-grade lithium hydroxide at the company’s Trelavour Hard Rock Project in the St Austell region. It concluded that 1.25 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) ‘run of mine’ – ore in its natural, unprocessed state – over the course of a 20-year mine life would be feasible, which would result in an average of 7,800tpa of lithium hydroxide.

That project, due to start production in 2026, has also been identified as benefiting from its close proximity to existing infrastructure, including power, rail, road and port facilities.

“It is also possible we will be able to produce small amounts of lithium from our geothermal water projects by 2025,” says Wrathall. However, he notes, “estimated lithium consumption in the UK automotive industry is expected to be around 80,000t by 2030; hence we will only be able to supply a small amount of the overall demand and that is a significant problem for the UK automotive industry.”

Yet, British Lithium, which was already manufacturing 5kg of lithium carbonate per day in 2022 at its pilot plant – sufficient to demonstrate that plant’s commercial value to potential customers – will likely take up some of the slack. It aims to build a full-scale plant that could eventually produce 21,000t of battery-grade lithium carbonate annually by 2030 from its quarrying and refining site.

Magnets are critical

The ATF, meanwhile, has been busy elsewhere, backing Pensana’s £145m Saltend development in the East Riding of Yorkshire. That facility will be developed to process the critical minerals used in magnets, a key component for manufacturing BEVs, as well as wind turbines, with expectations that operations will commence at the end of 2023.

Pensana eventually aims to produce 12,500t of separated rare earths, including 4,500–5,000t of neodymium and praseodymium (NdPr) oxide, representing about 5% of projected world demand in 2025, making it the second-largest magnet materials refiner outside of China.

Against this backdrop – and offering significant scope for bolstering supply chains – is the so-called ‘circular model’ of recycling, reusing, and repurposing; the worldwide lithium-ion battery recycling market, for example, is expected to reach $3.48bn by 2027, according to from Emergen Research. While definitions of the circular economy vary in detail, at the core is keeping products, materials and components in use at their highest value for as long as possible, restoring natural systems and eliminating waste, according to Neil Glover. Recycling is one part of this, but other approaches, such as increasing longevity and enabling reuse, repurposing or repair, are also important.

“Electric car batteries may well have a useful lifespan of a couple of decades – including second-life applications such as stationary energy storage,” says Glover. “So, while recycling them will not provide us with enough lithium for all the new ones we need, within five to ten years, it could be a notable contributor to the supply chain. It is predicted that, by 2040, the UK might be able to source somewhere between 25% and 35% of lithium from secondary sources.”

Scaling up research

Much work is being done in this field by WMG – an academic department within the University of Warwick. Unveiling its new EV battery recycling scale-up facility – the first of its kind in the UK – earlier this year, the department noted that today’s processes recover as little as 50% of the mass of the battery. The new facility, which will host a scaled-up version of its lithium recovery process – with claims that it will be able to recover over 90% of the lithium in a battery at very high purities – aims to rectify this. The Faraday Institution with its ReLib project – ‘Recycling and Reuse of Li-ion Batteries’ – is similarly actively engaged by examining the next generation of battery recycling technologies, as well as the underpinning scientific processes that could provide the UK with a competitive advantage.

“One of the work streams of the Faraday ReLiB project is specifically looking at the automation process including testing, disassembly and sorting using advanced robotics, machine vision and AI techniques,” Neil Glover explains.

“Material recovery would be significantly improved through designing batteries for the whole life cycle, standardising processes and providing more accurate data relating to the material streams.”

And therein lies the rub. Geopolitical ‘black swan’ events, such as Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, will likely continue crimping global supply chains over the short to medium term. Yet, despite the world having to adjust to higher inflation and higher interest rates in the short term as a result, the longer-term prognosis is better due to technological advances that will likely have a major say in terms of how commercial costs can be driven down. To draw the silver lining out a little further, it should also provide additional economic security for the industry – even if there’s some rough to travel before we get there.

This article first appeared in World Mining Frontiers magazine.