Rising demand for clean energy sources could mean a resurgence in mining: NPR

Materials like lithium are used in batteries for things like electric vehicles. For Cornwall, England, this has already led to a small mining boom.



MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused energy prices to soar around the world. As we have noted, Russia is a major exporter of oil and gas, and US and European officials are looking for ways to reduce Russian profits from these exports. A side effect – the race is also on to find more reliable domestic sources of green energy materials, such as lithium, an element used in electric car batteries. Willem Marx has this report from the UK, where a small mining boom for lithium is already underway.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: British geologist Robin Kelly has spent his career searching for the right variety of rock – first in Africa, focused on gold, zinc, copper, now much closer to home, on a windswept hill in Cornwall, England, where he works for a company called British Lithium, focused on a rock called lithium mica granite.

ROBIN KELLY: We’ve spent all these years doing exploration work to really understand that. So now we’re at the point where we think we have an economical lithium mica granite body.

MARX: Less than 1% of rock is metal, but it still makes economic sense to mine it because of soaring lithium prices, a crucial element in the race to electrify our world. And the extraction technique here in Cornwall is unique, says company CEO Andrew Smith.

ANDREW SMITH: Lithium is not uncommon. There are many events, but what we need to do is translate that into a final product. So there are a number of chemical steps that we have to go through.

MARX: Heat, electricity and quicklime help extract the lithium. And because they’re digging into old, abandoned mine pits and using water, not acid, to refine the lithium, the environmental impact is far less than usual. By repeating this small-scale mining process now, researchers like Katerina Omelchuk from Ukraine hope they will soon be working on a much larger project driven by global demand for better batteries.

KATERINA OMELCHUK: Now we want something bigger, bigger, faster, stronger with more performance, so we have to work on that.

MARX: Despite some $4 million in UK government funding, Smith says policymakers should pay even more attention to battery metals like lithium.

SMITH: If we were to shift our economy from hydrocarbons to electric vehicles, we would need these raw materials. And if we can source them nationally, I think that should be part of government policy.

MARX: Mining was once central to Cornwall’s economy, but in recent decades it has almost entirely come to a standstill. Now, these new technologies could help revive this industry and help the UK end its dependence on countries like China, which control most of the global lithium market. Steve Double is an MP representing the historic mining region of Cornwall and says increased government support for mining could create local jobs.

STEVE DOUBLE: Brexit, but also the pandemic, has really shone a light on supply chains and some of the fragility of our supply chains, and how we depend so heavily on one part of the world.

MARX: The lithium mined in Cornwall will help reduce carbon emissions, powering not only cars, but possibly trains as well. Japanese giant Hitachi is building electric trains that will run between London and Cornwall. Jim Brewin leads Hitachi in the UK

JIM BREWIN: So that’s why when governments set targets like the ones we’ve seen in the UK, Japan, the US, it really changes the way we think about what we have to deliver to society through through the work we do and fuels the One Step Forward. And the trials we do here can be a package deal.

MARX: Brewin says Hitachi’s global trains will rely on British-made battery technology because local production can also help decarbonise supply chains.

The batteries are built at a company in northern England called Turntide, funded by US billionaires – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg – and Britain’s own innovation agency. In large warehouses, the Turntide team is developing battery systems that power trains, aerial lifts and potentially even mining machinery for sale around the world.

CHRIS PENNISON: It’s at the end that we test them.

MARX: Chris Pennison, senior vice president of operations at Turntide, says his company is getting a lot of support from local and central governments, but insists this battery revolution must remain a priority.

PENNISON: We have to make sure we’re ahead of the competitors, the other countries. We need to make sure we can attract talent with what we do and how we do it. But we also have to know if we are going to play in this arena, we have to support the change that the country has to go through.

MARX: For NPR News, I’m Willem Marx in St. Austell, England.

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