Rocks mined for kaolin may offer new Cornish lithium source Metal Tech News – June 16, 2021
The mountains of material left behind from more than 275 years of mining kaolin, a mineral known as china clay due to its use in the fine white porcelain produced in China for thousands of years, in Cornwall could offer a new source of the lithium vital to the United Kingdom's transition to a zero-carbon economy.
To investigate the potential of producing the increasingly important battery metal from the kaolin mined in the southern UK region, Cornish Lithium Ltd. is leading Co-production of Lithium and China Clay in Cornwall, or CLiCCC, a project that also involves kaolin miner Imerys Minerals Ltd. and consultant HSSMI.
Cornish Lithium, which is focused on developing environmentally sound technologies to extract lithium from geothermal and other sources in Cornwall, is offering its lithium extraction know-how to the partnership.
"Having identified the opportunity for the co-production of lithium and kaolin, Cornish Lithium is ideally placed to evaluate the opportunity to build a lithium raw material supply chain in Cornwall," said Cornish Lithium CEO Jeremy Wrathall.
Outside of the consortium, Cornish Lithium is exploring Trelavour, a lithium project in the St. Austell region of Cornwall, where the lithium-ion battery metal is found within mica minerals in the granite.
It so happens that most of the estimated 120 million metric tons of kaolin that has been produced in Cornwall since 1746 was mined from decomposed granite in the St. Austell region that may also contain vast quantities of lithium mica.
This lithium potential of this Cornish kaolin region was outlined in a 1987 British Geological Survey report. At that time, however, there was no economic imperative to further investigate this potential.
The global transition to low-carbon transportation and energy production, along with British automakers' own aspirations to switch to electric vehicle production, has increased the economic imperative for a UK source of this vital ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries powering EVs and storing renewable energy.
Given the growing demand for lithium and the potential that mountains of material from nearly three centuries of kaolin mining could offer a viable source of this battery metal, Innovate UK is funding 1 million pounds (US$1.4 million) toward the Cornish Lithium-led project to assess the potential to produce lithium from waste material produced from both current and historic china clay mining operations.
It is expected that the co-production of lithium from minerals that occur in the same rock as kaolin could be a win-win situation that makes the Cornish kaolin industry even more competitive in international markets and offers another domestic supply of lithium that is vital to the UK's transition to renewable energy and a zero-carbon economy.
"The award of funding to Cornish Lithium, Imerys, and HSSMI from Innovate UK for the Co-production of Lithium and China Clay in Cornwall project is great news," said Steve Double, member of parliament for St Austell and Newquay. "Seeing our kaolin industry opening up to the new and emerging lithium extraction business will create new high-tech and well-paid jobs, and drive economic growth for Cornwall for our and future generations."
Since the discovery of kaolin in Cornwall, this southern UK region known for its tin and copper mines has been a dominant force in the production of china clay. In 1999, France-based Imerys acquired English China Clay, a company that was formed in 1919 as a merger of the three main kaolin producers in Cornwall.
Today, Imerys employs more than 750 people in Cornwall and is estimated to contribute more than 220 million (US$310 million) in sales per year to the British economy.
In addition to porcelain, kaolin from Imerys' Cornish mines is used in a growing number of products such as paints, coatings, plastics, ceramics, rubber, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. Now, there is the potential that lithium in the waste material of this increasingly versatile clay could go into the batteries powering the future.
"Imerys is pleased to work with the CLiCCC partners on this exciting project to evaluate the possibility of building a new, strategically important project for the UK economy," said Ashley Shopland, a director at Imerys Minerals.
The CLiCCC project will benefit from assistance from HSSMI, a sustainable manufacturing innovation consultancy with expertise in manufacturing strategy, digital manufacturing tools, circular economy, automation, hydrogen propulsion, advanced manufacturing simulation, electric drives, and battery technology.
"For the future of electrification, it is vital to explore how the UK could gain access to lithium deposits," said Savina Venkova, circular economy manager at HSSMI. "Our expertise in working across industries, including the electric vehicle recycling and manufacturing industries, to help companies maximize the opportunities offered by the circular economy will be extremely beneficial to the project team."
Combined with Cornish Lithium's testing of new technologies to extract lithium from geothermal waters at its United Downs facility, the CLiCCC project could further boost Cornwall's position as an emerging European supplier of the lithium-ion battery namesake metal.
"By embracing new technologies to allow us to explore for things responsibly, to extract things efficiently and in a low-carbon manner, there really is a huge opportunity for the UK to provide some of the critical raw materials that are going to be so crucial to our energy transition and our energy future here in the UK," Cornish Lithium Senior Geologist Lucy Crane said during a video briefing prepared for attendees of the G7 summit that was held in Cornwall from June 11-13.
More information on Cornish Lithium's projects can be read at Lithium revives Cornwall mining region in the June 9, 2021 edition of Metal Tech News.