Researchers find way to produce lithium for electric car batteries in the UK

Material being mined from graphite in Cornwall and Scotland

BRITISH researchers working on ways to source lithium, a critical component of the batteries used in electric vehicles, have produced a chemical known as lithium carbonate from rocks found in Cornwall and Scotland.

Lithium carbonate is described by the Li4UK project — a collaboration between the Natural History Museum, Cornish Lithium and consultancy Wardwell Armstrong — as “a main precursor for compounds used in lithium-ion batteries”.

Lithium, the lightest known metal and lightest solid element, is currently mined in only a handful of countries around the world but with the volume of electric cars being manufactured rising rapidly, as countries set deadlines on banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, experts are searching for new, alternate sources.

Why is mining lithium in the UK important?

Lithium is currently produced far from the UK — in 2019, Australia was responsible for more than half (52.9%) of global lithium supply, with the bulk of the rest supplied by Chile, China and Argentina.

Lithium compounds mined in Australia and South America are then usually sent to China to be processed into the chemicals used in electric vehicle batteries, before being sent to battery producers and then on to car plants around the world to be installed in cars. There is currently no production of battery quality lithium raw materials in Europe.

Due to the fact that Chile and Australia hold nearly three quarters of the world’s lithium reserves between them, they are unlikely to be usurped as the world’s biggest suppliers any time soon, but producing it in the UK even in small quantities takes a leg out of lithium’s journey from beneath ground to beneath the bonnet, which is beneficial for the environmental credentials of EVs.

Professor Reimar Seltmann, Principal Investigator for the project at the National History Museum, said of finding a way to produce lithium for electric car batteries in the UK:

“The breakthroughs open the door wide for producing, in the near future, battery compounds through a wholly domestic process. This can be achieved in three parts.

“First, lithium will be sourced from UK hard-rock raw materials. Secondly, the extraction and processing of a lithium concentrate to finally enable the production of a battery cell ‘Made in the UK’. Steps have been taken by our partners so that the latter ambition can be achieved in the next few months.”

Good start for Britain in Brexit battery race

The breakthrough by the Li4UK project sets Britain on a good course to create its own EV supply chain in the next five years, which is important since the UK left the European Union.

Last month The Times reported that the Brexit deal agreed with the EU meant that the UK would be forced to build its own battery “gigafactories” in order to avoid damaging tariffs.

Under the terms of the new free trade agreement with the EU, which was negotiated at the eleventh hour in December 2020, for goods sold in the EU to qualify as tariff free they must have components produced under localised sourcing — or rules of origin — regulations. Although most parts of a car can be produced using raw materials created within the UK or EU, many battery packs are at present imported from outside the two territories.

UK-based car makers need to have developed their own local battery supply chain by 2026 in order to avoid these charges.

Nissan’s Leaf comes with two battery sizes, the smaller of which is already built in Sunderland and therefore qualifies under the rules of origin terms, but the larger battery is imported from Japan.

According to The Times, unions are desperate for Nissan to manufacture a pure-electric version of the popular Qashqai SUV at the factory to help secure jobs. A hybrid version of the car, also made in Sunderland, will launch later this year.

Jaguar Land Rover is reportedly seeking support to build a gigafactory in the UK but has so far failed to drum up a deal due to fears that it would break EU rules. It currently builds its I-Pace electric SUV through a third party in Graz, Austria.