Cornwall to play central role in the UK clean energy ambitions

10.a (Cornish Lithium Reverse Circulation Rig at Trelavour, near St Austell)

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Cornish landscape was transformed by copper and tin mining. The industry became so globally renowned that, in 2006, select mining locations across Cornwall and Devon were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, putting the region’s mines on a par with the likes of Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. 

“You talk about mining and Cornwall, and there is a deep multigenerational association,” says Jeremy Wrathall, founder and chief executive of Cornish Lithium. “It’s in many people’s blood.”

Wrathall studied at Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall and founded Cornish Lithium in 2016 with the dream of commercially extracting the prized metal lithium in the county for the first time.

The electric vehicle boom and demand for lithium-ion batteries has led to a global race to find new sources of the metal. China, South America and Africa have been key locations to date, but a tip-off from a friend in the mining industry led Wrathall to consider the possibility that Cornwall could also provide an opportunity for lithium extraction.

“In 2011 when South Crofty [the region’s last working tin mine until 1998] was in the midst of planning for reopening, a friend was on the project and talking up all the metals there that could still be exacted there, and he mentioned lithium,” Wrathall says.

“It wasn’t until 2016 when I was reading about electric vehicles and we could all see the industry was going to take off that, as a miner, I instantly thought about where it was all the lithium was going to come from.

“I started looking into it and there were historic records of lithium in geothermal waters under the granite in Cornwall. From there it was all about trying to establish if there was technology that allows you to extract lithium from water. There were only two companies doing it at the time around the world but the technology existed.”

Industry of the future

Extraction is the key word for Wrathall. He says that in the early days of Cornish Lithium, he had to battle the negative association with the image of bringing widespread mining to Cornwall again.

“Mining is emotive, but for many it conjures up an image of digging deep into the ground, the dirty faces, the industry of the past,” he says. “That’s not what we’re doing. What we’re doing is industry of the future. We’re extracting a metal which is the facilitator for the clean energy transition. Without lithium there is no energy transformation, that’s it. No electric cars, no batteries, no renewable energy storage. We’re essentially back to burning fuels as our energy options.”

Wrathall says the extraction process is low impact. Waters are accessed via boreholes drilled from the surface into permeable geological faults. Once the waters have been pumped to the surface, it is then possible to selectively extract the lithium compounds using Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technologies that are largely considered environmentally responsible. “We’re talking about a process that essentially produces battery-quality zero-carbon lithium chemicals directly from geothermal waters,” says Wrathall. “And for it to be here in Cornwall, under all this granite, is essentially a geological phenomenon.”

Funding Exploration

Wrathall says the process of drilling the first hole to prove viability was an “incredibly nerve-wracking one” that required angel investment and a huge amount of faith that historical records of previous lithium extraction, in the 1860s, had been accurate.

That was the case, and the company has ramped up its operations with the goal of extracting lithium for use in batteries by 2026. It aims to increase its workforce of 70 to more than 300 once it starts commercial production. From there, Wrathall sees a future where the company could be producing 8-10,000 tonnes of lithium a year from as many as 100 different sites around Cornwall.

A key funding round in September secured £53.6m from the UK Infrastructure Bank, US private equity firm Energy & Minerals Group and Cornish Lithium’s largest existing institutional shareholder, TechMet.

“It’s financing but there’s also political heft with this deal,” says Wrathall. “Both components are important when you talk about scaling this idea up at the speed we’re looking to achieve. The funding is transformational because there’s the £53m, but the aggregate is closer to £250m.

“There is a connected feasibility study which, if positive, then all those funders have said they want the option to put in another £200m. This is a huge deal. It’s one of the biggest private investments in Cornwall.”

A week after the announcement, Cornish Lithium closed one of the largest crowdfunding exercises in the UK to date, raising £5.1m. The business has undertaken several such crowdfunders, each to provide existing as well as new shareholders the opportunity to invest, each raising over £1m.

Cornish Lithium and its competitor British Lithium (majority owned by French global mining company Imerys) have been buoyed by the announcement of plans to build Europe’s largest electric vehicle battery gigafactory in the South West in Somerset.

“What’s exciting is you can see the clear supply line from the lithium extraction in Cornwall to the battery production in Somerset and then to vehicle manufacturing in the Midlands,” says Wrathall. “The supply chain is there for electric vehicles and battery storage for renewable energy to be British industries. There are multiple benefits to local employment and the UK economy.”

Wrathall says that ensuring the industry is kept local as it builds is key. “We want to hire local as much as we can, we want to build around local communities and improve the year-round employment opportunities in the region.” British Lithium plans to extract 20,000 tonnes of lithium a year from its sites.

“We need every single ton of lithium we can get for this battery industry and for the clean energy transformation,” says Wrathall. 
“We can live and work together. The opportunity we’re talking about here in Cornwall offers enormous potential.”