Imerys (EPA:NK) and British Lithium have formed a joint venture with the objective of creating the UK’s first integrated producer of battery-grade lithium carbonate.
- Imerys, the French giant providing mineral-based speciality solutions for industry, has acquired an 80% stake in UK miner British Lithium.
- Their project is expected to provide enough lithium to meet roughly two-thirds of Britain’s estimated battery demand by 2030.
- Establishing a reliable supply chain for electric vehicles (EVs) will allow the UK and the EU to wean off imports.
Imerys, the French giant providing mineral-based speciality solutions for industry, has acquired an 80% stake in British Lithium, a private company that has developed a processing route to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate from Cornish granite.
What is British Lithium’s technology?
Since 2017, British Lithium has carried out drilling and exploration on Imerys-owned land in Cornwall and developed a process and pilot plant to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate, extracting lithium from the mica in granite. The mine will follow the IRMA Standard, the most demanding global benchmark for responsible mining. The industry is well known for its negative effects on the surrounding environment, and the toxic chemicals typically used in lithium extraction contaminate local water supplies, soils and air.
The company claims that the mine has a forecast energy intensity marginally lower than the weighted average for existing mineral producers, while greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of product will be significantly less. This is because the project expects to access a grid virtually free of coal and with increasing renewable energy sources.
It is also estimated to use much less water compared to other producers. This is an ongoing issue in the sector, as lithium tends to be located in arid regions and is found in the brine of salt flats. The use of water in the mining process takes this precious resource away from the local communities and the local flora and fauna, even leading to water-related conflicts in areas such as Argentina and Chile.
British Lithium has received financial support from Innovate UK and the Automotive Transformation Fund, a funding programme to support the electrification of vehicles and their supply chains in the country.
What is the purpose of the joint venture?
The transaction will bring together Imerys’ expertise in mining, infrastructure in Cornwall, research and development and process development capabilities, as well as its lithium mineral resources, with British Lithium’s lithium pilot plant.
Following drilling and resource definition, inferred mineral resources are estimated at 161 million tonnes at a grade of 0.54 % lithium oxide. These resources give sufficient confidence to target a life of mine exceeding 30 years at a production rate of 20,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent per year.
This could be enough to equip 500,000 electrical vehicles per year, by the end of the decade, meeting roughly two-thirds of Britain’s estimated battery demand by 2030 when all UK car manufacturers convert to EVs.
Securing a supply of critical minerals
The transaction has been approved by the UK Government under the National Security Investment Act protocol. This venture is expected to reduce the UK’s and Europe’s dependence on critical raw materials imports, contributing to the achievement of the European and British climate change targets and the creation of a fully integrated regional EV value chain.
In fact, even though lithium extraction comes with significant environmental issues, it is one of the five vital minerals used in battery manufacturing and is the main component of lithium-ion batteries, which are found in almost all EVs today.
The combination of this and the EMILI project in France would make Imerys the largest integrated lithium producer in Europe, representing more than 20% of the announced European lithium output by 2030.
UK Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch said: “This joint venture between Imerys and British Lithium will strengthen our domestic supply of critical minerals, which is vitally important as we seek to grow the UK’s advanced manufacturing industry and help create the jobs of the future.”
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), developing enough lithium supplies is one of the most important factors to deliver a decarbonised future, but there are only enough mines and projects under construction to meet 50% of the projected demand by 2030. This need is driving M&A in the space as seen with Imerys and British Lithium.
The fact that the mine is located in the UK is of particular importance, as the country has seen an exodus of carmakers, as they could not secure the necessary raw materials to shift production to EVs. The lack of a reliable supply chain is one of the reasons why battery startup Britishvolt, hailed as a key project in the UK Government’s economic strategy, collapsed before it even started.
The automotive industry is likely to see the Cornish project as a step in the right direction. It may also represent a little win for the UK in its battle to convince the world it is still a leader in the green transition, although, if the latest Climate Change Committee report is anything to go by, there is much more work to do.