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Geothermal energy could transform the way lithium is sourced


It is known for its beautiful coastline, picturesque countryside, and fresh seafood. If everything works out, lithium extraction could become a string in the future.

Cornwall’s county is working hard to develop an industry that can produce both renewable and local energy.

In addition to its role in smartphones, tablets, computer and other devices, lithium also has a major impact on electric vehicles and battery storage. This technology is key to the planet’s move to zero and low emission future.

Geothermal Engineering Ltd is a Cornish company that specializes in developing and operating geothermal projects. It’s an example of how the sector will develop over the coming years.

GEL has a pilot project that aims to extract lithium from geothermal waters. This is in addition to its plans for renewable energy. This joint venture, GeoCubed, is an agreement with Cornish Lithium.

GEL states that the goal is to show that lithium hydroxide (a critical component in lithium-ion battery technology) can be made in Cornwall using naturally occurring geothermal waters with zero carbon footprint.

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Direct lithium extraction (or DLE) is the focus of the project in Cornwall. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory says that DLE technologies can be divided into three categories. These include adsorption with porous materials, which enable lithium bonding and ion exchange, as well as solvent extraction.

The potential is exciting, but the NREL says it will be a challenge to scale these methods up to full production.

According to the report, “For instance, it’s difficult to create a bonding material with only lithium in geothermal salt brine which also contains other minerals and metals.”

Green transition: ‘Irreplaceable’

Concerns about sustainability and ESG have been growing at the moment, so projects like Cornwall’s are a welcome addition to our portfolio. Security of global supply chains poses another problem, as the majority of lithium production currently comes from countries like Chile, Australia, China and Argentina.

In this context, it could prove vital to continue commercializing more efficient, local, and accessible sources of lithium.

Plans to expand the use of electric cars on roads are being developed by major economies as well as automotive companies. At the same time, there is no stopping the expansion of renewable energy capacities.

Julia Poliscanova is senior director for e-mobility at Transport & Environment, a campaign group headquartered in Brussels. CNBC spoke to her and described lithium as an “irreplaceable resource for all our green transitions.”

Poliscanova stated that sustainable sourcing lithium and other metals would require that “mid- to long-term, it is clear that most of it must come from circular business models. Most notably, recycling.”

She said that the future would see “really tremendous growth” and “really huge demand.” In the medium-term, this would mean new extraction methods.

Poliscanova emphasized her point by saying that most of the lithium in use in 2030 was not yet extracted.

“That’s why geothermal Lithium comes in,” she explained. “Because the new lithium and new resources that we need, it must be sustainably mined with minimum impact on our environment and communities.

“How do we get it out?”

GeoCubed’s £4 million ($5.46 million) pilot plant will focus on a range of direct lithium extraction technologies. GEL’s United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project will eventually be developed into a commercially viable plant.

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Ryan Law, GEL founder and managing Director, spoke to CNBC. He explained the potential opportunity that his business wanted to take advantage of. Law explained that Cornwall has lots of granite rocks beneath its surface. This rock, in turn, contains a high level lithium.

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

“The next step: How do we get it out?” Law said. Law said, “And this’s what we have been looking at together with a variety of partners.”

Changing times

GEL is just one of many companies that are looking for facilities to extract lithium directly. Cornish Lithium has also been working on other projects in addition to GeoCubed.

Australia is listed elsewhere in April 2021 Vulcan Energy ResourcesThe pilot plant for direct lithium extraction, which is located in Germany’s Upper Rhine Valley had begun operations.

Controlled Thermal Resources in the U.S. announced, in November 2005 that their drilling program for the Hell’s Kitchen Lithium and Power project had begun.

Rod Colwell, the CEO of the company at the time stated that the company had “set the pace to deliver the first 50MW baseload renewable energy power plant in the latter part of 2023” and the estimated 20,000 tonnes lithium hydroxide by 2024.

Some major companies are paying attention to Hell’s Kitchen. The Hell’s Kitchen project was launched last summer. General MotorsControlled Thermal Resources has been “agreed” to establish a commercial and strategic collaboration to ensure local low-cost and affordable lithium.

“As the initial investor, GM shall have first rights in lithium produced at the Hell’s Kitchen Project’s first stage, with an option of a multi-year partnership,” the automaker said.

Sea change

These developments are at various stages but could result in a significant shift in the method lithium is mined.

The majority of the lithium comes from either open-pit mining or the lithium-containing saltwater under salt flats according to the NREL.

According to the article, the second involves lithium saltwater being “pumped into large tanks where it evaporates.”

These processes have significant environmental impacts. Open-pit and salt flats mining, according to the NREL, “can cause land destruction, contamination and excessive water use, particularly in regions already experiencing drought or desertification.” The NREL also states that salt flats can occupy significant amounts of land.

DLE allows, however, for “a more sustainable supply of lithium, which includes using geothermal power as the renewable source for production.”

The image below shows Geothermal engineering Ltd’s proof-of-concept power plant located on the United Downs Industrial Estate, Cornwall.

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Keep moving forward

GeoCubed continues in Cornwall. Ross-shire Engineering was chosen by the company to help it with engineering, procurement, construction, and commissioning (or EPCC).

In its statement, it also mentioned a GEL electrical submersible pumps test in August 2021 that resulted “a bulk sampling of geothermal waters.”

GeoCubed stated that the lithium levels in the sample are “encouraging” and also added that other key byproducts like caesium and rubidium were found to be elevated.

The pilot facility should be operational by March if all goes according to plan.