Imerys and British Lithium to develop UK’s largest lithium deposit while Norway’s Norge Mining makes major phosphate discovery

Article by Kerry Hebden

FRENCH multinational firm, Imerys, has teamed up with extraction company British Lithium to become the UK’s first integrated producer of battery-grade lithium carbonate, a key component in electric cars. 

Elsewhere, critical minerals miner Norge Mining has discovered up to 70bn t of phosphorus, another mineral that can be used in batteries to power electric cars. With enough phosphorus to meet decades of demand, exploitation of the major find would help alleviate shortage concerns. 

A leading lithium hub

The deal between British Lithium and Imerys will see Cornwall become the leading lithium hub in the UK, as the partnership aims to produce 20,000 t/y of lithium carbonate equivalent from a large deposit located at an existing Imerys granite site near St Austell. The mine has inferred mineral resources estimated at 161m t at 0.54 % lithium carbonate, and it could potentially operate for 30 years. 

That would be enough to equip 500,000 electric cars per year, by the end of the decade. Imerys said this would meet roughly two-thirds of Britain’s estimated battery demand by 2030, when all UK car manufacturers are set to convert to electric vehicles.  

The proposed development will include a quarry, a beneficiation plant, and a co-located conversion unit that will produce high-purity lithium. The site is also the home of British Lithium’s state-of-the-art lithium pilot plant, which received financial support for its construction from Innovate UK, the UK’s national innovation agency, and the Automotive Transformation Fund, a funding programme to support the electrification of vehicles and their supply chains in the UK. 

Along with generating new job opportunities, the venture is expected to reduce the UK’s and Europe’s dependence on critical raw materials imports, as to help establish the creation of the first fully-integrated regional electrical vehicle value chain. 

The arrangement, which sees Imerys acquire an 80% stake in British Lithium, will also formalise the long-working partnership between the two firms, and allow Imerys to contribute the lithium expertise it has developed through its EMILI project in Allier, France. 

EMILI, or Exploitation de Mica Lithinifère par Imerys, is one of the largest lithium extraction projects in Europe. When combined with its mine in Cornwall, Imerys will be the largest integrated lithium producer in Europe, representing more than 20% of the announced European lithium output by 2030. 

Alessandro Dazza, CEO of Imerys, said: “This acquisition is a milestone in Imerys’ journey to becoming a key partner in the energy transition. Building on our recent investment in the EMILI Project in France, we are uniquely placed to become a leading supplier of lithium in the UK and Europe. We look forward to unlocking the joint potential of British Lithium and Imerys to make Cornwall a successful lithium hub, building on its centuries-old mining heritage.”  

Roderick Smith, chairman of British Lithium, said: “After working closely with Imerys for several years, the directors, shareholders, and staff of British Lithium are delighted to formalise their partnership with Imerys and are confident that this alignment of interests will propel us toward continued rapid progress. This marks a key milestone for British Lithium, Imerys, and the entire lithium battery industry, as they embark on a journey to establish a sustainable future for lithium production in the United Kingdom.’ 

Norwegian mineral find

Norge Mining originally made its phosphorus ore body find in 2018, and it was estimated to extend 300 m below the surface. However, subsequent drilling programmes have found that the deposit runs 4,500 m deep. 

Designated an EU critical raw material in 2020, around 50m t/y of phosphorus is used globally – the vast majority of which is used to produce fertiliser for the agriculture industry.  

Phosphorus also plays a big role in the green and digital transition and is used widely throughout industry to etch components in the manufacturing of electronics such as semiconductors, and electronic circuits, that in turn are used in devices such as solar panels. 

But phosphorus is an irreplaceable natural resource.  And up until now, the largest reserves of phosphate rock have been found outside the EU. Morocco has more than half of the planet’s total reserves of 72bn t, while China, the US, Syria, Uzbekistan, South Africa, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Russia each have sizeable deposits too. 

The political instability in some source countries, as well as international sanctions imposed on others, along with a lack of new phosphate mining and processing projects, has led to a fear of phosphorus shortages. 

The huge phosphate deposit found in Norway is therefore a boon, not just for Europe, but globally, as the amount of phosphorus it contains is enough to meet world-wide demand for the next 50 years, said Norge Mining. The deposit also contains vanadium and titanium which are also classed as critical raw materials by the EU. 

Article by Kerry Hebden

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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