The company – aided with a grant from the Automotive Transformation Fund - has been trialling the effectiveness of multiple direct lithium extraction (DLE) technologies in extracting lithium from the geothermal brines found in boreholes at Eastgate.
Trials with Manchester-based, Watercycle Technologies produced lithium carbonate at laboratory scale using their Direct Lithium Extraction and Crystallisation (DLEC) process, which selectively removes lithium ions from complex brines using mixed matrix hollow fibre adsorption membranes followed by concentration, polishing and crystallisation stages.
Lithium is a critical raw material for electric vehicle batteries, but no commercial lithium production or refining takes place in the UK or Europe. Lithium produced and refined in the UK will present transportation cost advantages, supply assurances and an environmental-premium over foreign suppliers.
“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,” Stewart Dickson, CEO of Weardale Lithium, said in a statement. “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.”
Extraction of lithium from geothermal brines via DLE processes has been assessed by third parties to have higher sustainability credentials over alternative lithium sources. It is a low-impact, low-carbon and low-water usage method of extracting lithium from brines which Weardale Lithium intend to augment using power from renewable energy sources.
This milestone enables Weardale Lithium to progress its plans for scaling up lithium extraction trials and supports the investment decision for the construction and operation of a DLE pilot-demonstration plant for test-scale production of lithium. The pilot-demonstration facility will be located on the brownfield, former cement works at Eastgate. Commercial production of approximately 10,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per year is being targeted which has the potential to directly generate around 125 new jobs. At commercial scale, Weardale Lithium estimate that £1bn of gross economic value could be generated for the North East region.
“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,” said Dickson.