Multicoloured lithium crystals on a black background.

Lithium carbonate produced from Cornish hard rock samples, taken under a polarised microscope. 

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Lithium carbonate has been produced from UK rocks for the first time

For the first time researchers have been able to produce lithium carbonate, needed in the production of electric car batteries, from UK rocks.

It is hoped that this could provide a more sustainable supply of the materials needed for battery production in the UK as the electric car industry gains momentum. 

With most of the world's production of lithium, a critical component in the batteries used to power electric cars, occurring in just a handful of countries, there is an increasing need to find alternative sources as the demand of such vehicles is expected to rise.

Finding new sources could help solve the problem.

It is to this end that the Li4UK project, which brings together the Museum, Wardell Armstrong and Cornish Lithium, has been exploring ways in which the sourcing of raw materials and processing technologies can be carried out in the UK.

For the first time, the researchers have produced a chemical known as lithium carbonate from rocks found in Cornwall and Scotland. Lithium carbonate is a main precursor for compounds used in lithium-ion batteries.

The independent verification of Li carbonate was carried out at NHM by Dr Jens Najorka for the XRD work and Dr Emma Humphreys-Williams for the chemical analyses.

The 10 persons strong NHM project team engaged mainly in field sampling, mineral system analyses and mineral characterization, followed by lab experiments. Prof Reimar Seltmann is the Principal Investigator for the project at the Museum.

'These two samples represent the first known production of lithium carbonate from UK hard rock sources and hence are of great importance for the UK economy,' says Reimar.

'The positive results from this project will accelerate the development of a domestic supply of battery quality lithium chemicals for the UK automotive and battery industries, and the consequent economic value that such industries would generate.'

This development is also expected to deliver environmental benefits as domestic production for use in UK batteries and electric vehicles could significantly reduce the carbon impacts associated with the current global supply chain.

Making electric cars more sustainable

Over the coming decades it is expected that there will be a boom in electric car production as fossil fuels are phased out. For the foreseeable future, these new cars will require a lithium-ion battery to power them.

Found in everything from the smartphone in your pocket to the laptop this article is being written on, these batteries power much of what we do in the modern world, but their production has been a source of contention.

Lithium is a naturally occurring metal found on almost every continent but is largely commercially mined in South America and Australia, before being shipped to China for processing into battery-grade lithium chemicals. Finally, batteries are sent to Europe to be installed in electric vehicles.

It is this environmental cost, both of the mining and the shipping, that has often driven conversations around the sustainability of the industry.

There is currently no commercial production of battery quality lithium raw materials in Europe. If we can find a way to produce lithium here, it is hoped the environmental cost can be brought down through more localised production of the lithium chemicals needed.

'By avoiding long-haul transport from traditional supply markets such as Chile, Australia and China to the UK electric vehicle and battery producers it will reduce the carbon footprint of the value chain from source to product,' explains Reimar.

Domestic sources

The Li4UK team have been exploring the sources of lithium within the UK. These latest results have shown that they are able to produce battery-grade lithium chemicals from granite found in both Cornwall and Scotland.

It could pave the way for the extraction and refinement of lithium in the UK.

'The breakthroughs open the door wide for producing, in the near future, battery compounds through a wholly domestic process,' says Reimar. '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 UK". Steps have been taken by our partners that the latter ambition can be achieved in the next few months.'