x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

UK firm to harness salt water to power battery plans

New technology to extract lithium from brine, or salt water, is helping to make other options more viable.

Brine pools and processing areas of the Soquimich lithium mine in northern Chile. Cornish L:ithium ains to challenge Latin America's domination of lithium production. Ivan Alvarado / Reuters
Brine pools and processing areas of the Soquimich lithium mine in northern Chile. Cornish L:ithium ains to challenge Latin America's domination of lithium production. Ivan Alvarado / Reuters

The British mining company Cornish Lithium has secured £1 million (Dh4.7m) to explore for lithium in Cornwall, southwest England, its chief executive said, taking the country a step closer to a domestic source of the strategic mineral.

Lithium plays an essential role in electric car batteries, and is produced by evaporation in Latin America, which has been considered the cheapest source. But new technology to extract lithium from brine, or salt water like the sea, is helping to make other options more viable.

In January, Cornish Lithium said it had reached a mineral rights agreement with Canada's Strongbow Exploration.

It then said it needed around £5m to develop its project to extract lithium from underground hot springs and to supply products to the rapidly growing battery market for electric cars and for power storage.

Jeremy Wrathall, the chief executive of Cornish Lithium, said he now expected the project would be cheaper and the £1m announced on Monday would be enough for at least a year.

The money will be used to decide where to put the first drill holes. Production is at least five years away, Mr Wrathall said, adding the investors brought mineral expertise, as well as funds.

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They are Peter Smedvig,the founder of investment firm Smedvig Capital, Keith Liddell, a metallurgical engineer and former mining chief executive, and Chris von Christierson, the director and principal of the mining firm Southern Prospecting.

Mr Liddell said he believed Cornish Lithium could become a very significant player in the lithium industry in Britain and Europe.

Other companies actively pursuing the technology include Canada's Standard Lithium, which last month announced its latest development.

The British government is counting on a low-carbon car industry to shore up the economy after the country leaves the European Union. The government has also said it will ban new petrol and diesel cars from 2040, raising the prospect of a huge increase in demand for lithium.

Mr Wrathall, a mining engineer who graduated from Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, said Cornish Lithium also has synergies with a hoped-for mining revival in Cornwall and with development of geothermal energy, which could be used in processing.

The United Downs Deep Geothermal Project is seeking to produce energy with the help of EU and local government money by drilling deep into Cornish granite, which naturally produces heat.

Ryan Law, managing director at Geothermal Engineering, which is helping to develop the project, said drilling should start early next year.

Strongbow Exploration, which will get royalties from any lithium extracted by Cornish Lithium, bought South Crofty, which in 1998 was the last tin mine to close in Cornwall, and aims to bring back tin production there.