Experts believe Cornwall may hold significant deposits of the valuable mineral, which is in increasing demand globally for use in batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage
Scientists in Cornwall plan to boldly go where no one has gone before by using satellites to search the county for lithium, a mineral for which there is increasingly hot demand from global clean technology industries.
A team of data scientists at the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult (SAC) is leading the Innovate UK-funded new study to see if it is possible to detect a lithium ‘fingerprint’ from space by analysing vegetation and minerals on the ground.
Data collected will then be integrated with geological information to create a ‘prospectivity map’ to help identify indicators of geological structures which may host lithium in waters – known as brines – deep below the surface of the ground, the SAC said.
Demand for lithium has soared in recent years as tech firms have rushed to develop new lithium ion batteries for use in electric vehicles, consumer electronics, and energy storage systems.
Tesla’s EV pipeline and giant gigawatt factory is just one example of the rising demand for lithium, while last week a division of Toyota snapped up a $224m stake in Australian lithium mining outfit Orocobre in a sign of the sector’s growing appeal.
It now appears the rush for lithium has hit UK shores too, with UK firm Cornish Lithium Ltd planning to use the results from the new satellite study to boost its understanding of the region’s underground geological structures with a view to potential future extraction.
According to the firm there are various historical accounts of brine containing lithium, some dating back to as early as 1864, and it now believes the region could therefore contain important reserves.
Jeremy Wrathall, founder and CEO of Cornish Lithium Ltd, said he believed lithium could have “significant strategic importance” to the UK economy and that the funding would help boost understanding of the potential to extract the mineral in the county.
“We believe that techniques developed from this study will prove of great interest to the mining industry globally given the growing importance of Earth Observation techniques as an unobtrusive exploration tool worldwide,” said Wrathall. “We look forward to taking this exciting project forward to the next stage of its development.”
There are eleven organisations involved in the study, exploring four areas of research: geology, vegetation, fault detection and environmental monitoring of mining operations, according to SAC, with results from the study expected by the end of March 2018.
The project has been funded through an £850,000 grant from Innovate UK, the government’s innovation agency, and the team comprises experts from the British Geological Survey, Camborne School of Mines, Carrak Consulting, North Coast Consulting, Cornish Lithium Ltd, CGG, Terrabotics, Telespazio Vega UK, Geo Performa and Dares Technology.
Dr Cristian Rossi, principal EO specialist at the Satellite Applications Catapult, said the project would help to “push boundaries” in helping to develop the first digital maps that display the probability of occurrence of lithium in Cornwall. “Initial investigations show promising outcomes and the team is currently working on their validation,” said Rossi.
It’s still early days, but it looks like the UK’s embryonic lithium mining industry is, in one sense at least, already heading in to orbit.