UK races to mine lithium as it focuses on electric energy,

As the global energy transition continues to promote electrification, governments around the world are looking to support businesses that can help them transform their economies, particularly transportation. In the UK, that means funding for all aspects of the electric ecosystem, as Special Correspondent Willem Marx reports, from mines to making batteries.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As governments around the world race to reach new emissions targets in the wake of last fall's U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, hundreds of companies are focused on electrifying the economy, particularly the transportation sector.

    In the United Kingdom, as NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Willem Marx reports, government support is helping develop a domestic electric battery industry by mining a homegrown metal.

  • Willem Marx:

    Robin Kelly just loves looking for the right variety of rock. He's spent a decade hunting gold, copper and zinc across Africa. But these days works a little closer to home, in windswept Cornwall, England, where he's the chief geologist at a British business focused on a metal called lithium.

  • Robin Kelly, Chief Geologist, British Lithium:

    You have this body of lithium-mica granite, there's a lot of variation within that, and we've spent all these years conducting exploration work to really understand that. So we're now at the point where we believe we have an economic body of lithium-mica granite.

  • Willem Marx:

    This rock type called "lithium-mica granite" contains a little more than one percent lithium. but it still makes economic sense to extract it because lithium is now a crucial component in the race to electrify our world, and its price is soaring.

    This looks like it could be on my kitchen cabinet. But actually, in here, is the lithium we need for electric cars?

  • Robin Kelly:

    Yes, exactly. Just contained within these tiny minerals.

  • Willem Marx:

    Andrew Smith runs this business called, well, British Lithium. The metal is certainly not unique to Cornwall, but he says his team's extraction technique is.

  • Andrew Smith, CEO, British Lithium:

    Lithium is not rare, there are many occurrences. But what we need to do is translate that into a final product. So there's a number of chemical stages that we've got to go through.

  • Willem Marx:

    An international team of scientists, including Kateryna Omelchuk from Ukraine are using heat, electricity, quick lime and water to extract the lithium without requiring any new mitigation measures to protect the local environment.

    These researchers are rehearsing the extraction process at this mini refinery for what they hope will soon be a much larger project, driven by global demand for better batteries.

  • Kateryna Omelchuk, Hydrometallurgy Manager, British Lithium:

    Now we want something bigger, larger, quicker, stronger, with like more performance. So we have to work on this.

  • Willem Marx:

    A British government innovation fund has already invested almost four million dollars here, but Smith wants even more UK focus on mining metals.

  • Andrew Smith:

    If we were to transition our economy away from hydrocarbons, to electric vehicles, we're going to need those raw ingredients. And if we can source them domestically, I think that should be part of government policy and enabling us to do that in an economic way.

  • Willem Marx:

    Mines have played a big part in Cornwall's social and industrial history for thousands of years, providing livelihoods for thousands of locals. But in recent decades, as demand for other mined materials here has fallen, much of the digging here has stopped. But thanks to transformational technologies, these old hills and hollows could offer new economic opportunities for the community and help the UK end its reliance on countries like China, which controls most of the world's lithium market.

    Steve Double, Member of Parliament, Conservative Party: There's no doubt that the potential of lithium extraction has the potential of creating the well paid jobs that Cornwall really desperately needs now.

  • Willem Marx:

    Steve Double is a member of Parliament representing Cornwall's historic mining region.

  • Steve Double:

    Both Brexit but also the pandemic, has really put a spotlight on supply chains and some of the fragility that there is in our supply chains, and also how we are so heavily dependent on one part of the world. There's more to do for the government to get behind this emerging industry and really back it so that we can reach the potential that there is clearly there, both in terms of job creation and growing our economy, but also just putting the UK in a much more secure position in terms of supply chain.

  • Willem Marx, Special Correspondent, Cornwall, UK:

    The lithium to be mined here in Cornwall will be helping power the ongoing electric transportation revolution. But it won't just necessarily end up inside car batteries. Trains like this one will soon be powered by lithium ion batteries too.

    Government zero emissions targets mean mass transit must go green too, and train maker Hitachi will be trialling electric engines on this London to Cornwall route later this year.

    Jim Brewin, Hitachi UK & Ireland: From an engineering organization's perspective, what a challenge, what a fantastic opportunity to drive towards.

  • Willem Marx:

    Jim Brewin heads up Hitachi's UK office.

  • Jim Brewin:

    This is why when government sets targets like that, that we're seeing in the UK, in Japan, in the US, these really change how we look at what we need to offer to society through the work that we do, and batteries to one step forward. And the trials that we're doing here can be a global offering.

  • Willem Marx:

    Brewin says selecting local suppliers can also decarbonize production, so behind Hitachi's worldwide trains the battery technology will be British, developed here in the old industrial heartland of England's northeast.

    The new train batteries will rely on the same lithium ion technology as cars – but with very different power requirements.

  • Sarah Foster, Project Manager, Turntide Transport:

    A car has possibly part of one of these battery units, whereas we've got 16 battery unit, so it scales by volume.

  • Willem Marx:

    Sarah Foster is a project manager at the British firm Hitachi has hired to engineer these new batteries.

    She's overseeing the development of these vast locomotive power systems.

  • Sarah Foster:

    We start off slowly with two trial trains on two different networks, which are quite hard networks to run on. But then once we've proven that, it'll take off.

  • Willem Marx:

    Chris pennison runs this battery building business, once called Hyperdrive. It is now owned by an American company, Turntide, with backing from billionaires including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg, as well as the UK's innovation agency.

  • Chris Pennison, Senior VP Operations, Turntide Transport:

    I get exceptional support from all of the local government, central government's really backing what we're doing, and not just what we're doing, but the whole electrification sector.

  • Willem Marx:

    The battery systems here end up in everything from cherry pickers to construction machine and are sold around the world. But Pennison says Britain needs to prioritize this battery revolution.

  • Chris Pennison:

    We need to make sure that we're ahead of the competitors, the other countries, we have to make sure that we can attract talent with what we're doing and how we're doing it. But we also need to know if we're going to play in that arena, we have to support the change that the country has to go through in their worlds and the world's changing.

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