Weardale Lithium has made “significant steps” towards producing domestic lithium – to be used in EV batteries – in the North East, which could create more than 100 jobs.
The natural resources company has, for the first time, produced lithium carbonate from geothermal brines in County Durham, working with Manchester-based Watercycle Technologies.
There is currently no commercial lithium production or refining in the UK or Europe, which is needed in order to provide a secure supply of lithium and accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles and meet Net Zero targets.
Weardale Lithium has been trialling the effectiveness of multiple direct lithium extraction technologies in extracting lithium from the geothermal brines found in the existing boreholes at Eastgate, County Durham, following a grant from the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) Automotive Transformation Fund (ATF).
During the trial with Watercycle Technologies, the business produced the product using its proprietary Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) and Crystallisation process.
The milestone will enable Weardale Lithium to progress with its plans to scale up extraction trials and construct a DLE pilot-demonstration plant for test-scale production of lithium.
The facility, earmarked for land at Eastgate, will produce about 10,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per year, potentially creating 125 full-time jobs.
At commercial scale, Weardale Lithium estimate that £1bn of gross economic value could be generated for the North East region.
Stewart Dickson, chief executive of Weardale Lithium, said: “The supply of domestic lithium is of strategic importance to the UK’s Net Zero ambitions and production of high-value batteries for electric vehicles.
“We have taken a significant step forward in establishing that the naturally occurring geothermal brines are amenable for lithium production and validated a number of direct lithium extraction processes. We will now accelerate and scale-up the testing of increased volumes of brine towards first production.
“The grant from the APC has been hugely valuable in establishing this positive proof of concept and accelerating test-work to enable us to make the investment decision for the construction and operation of a DLE pilot-demonstration plant for test-scale production of lithium.
“Whilst there is still much to do, we have made significant steps towards being able to generate a domestic supply of lithium in the North East that will support vehicle electrification in the years to come.”
Seb Leaper, chief executive of WaterCycle Technologies, added: “It’s great to be working with Weardale Lithium and being the first company to produce lithium carbonate from its brines. The Net Zero transition is fundamentally impossible with existing supplies of critical minerals yet traditional modes of extracting them are themselves environmentally damaging.
“At Watercycle we have developed a process that produces zero waste, is water-neutral and requires 95 per cent less land than conventional lithium extraction processes. All that will be left after operations are a few manhole covers and so the natural beauty of the Weardale region will be preserved for future generations as well.”
Julian Hetherington, director, Automotive Transformation, APC said: “I’m delighted that the ATF was able to support Weardale Lithium’s Feasibility Study evaluating extraction and production of critical lithium supplies from UK resources centred on a disused brownfield site. Projects such as this are vital in securing upstream supply to support the UK’s forecast demand of over 97GWh of automotive batteries by 2030, and could support a significant proportion of the forecast 57,000tonnes per annum of UK lithium carbonate needs by that time.”