Together in Electric Dreams
Reading the title of this piece and you can be forgiven for thinking we’re referring to John Lewis’ latest Christmas ad. Not quite this time, but the sentiment still rings true. As the world ramps up its efforts to research technologies to develop a greener future, there’s one thing that more and more of us will always be together with: genuine, environmentally-beneficial electric dreams.
Even before renewable energy was an actual ‘thing’, we’ve always been reliant on it in some way or subconscious form. From designing water wheels to harness the energy generated by streams and rivers, to the more modern-day application of hydropower in hydroelectric dams, we’re constantly somewhere on the road to refining alternatives to fossil fuels.
Calling upon COP26
In a world that’s spent the majority of the last couple of years spinning out headlines about the ongoing pandemic, one thing managed to steal the show recently (albeit for just a fortnight). Global attention was drawn to COP26, the event that brought together an abundance of world leaders and environmental experts.
‘Uniting the world to tackle climate change’ was the name of the game. And, in fairness, they managed to deliver a variety of significant outcomes. Most prominently was perhaps the declaration by 141 leaders on forests and land use, AKA a revised commitment to preventing deforestation.
Among messages of urgency were also messages of hope, and… Messages of manipulation; ‘green’ policies for political gain. And that’s not all. Economically, the financial rewards of unearthing the next big ‘thing’ to allow the green industrial revolution to really take off are both astounding, and unfathomable.
‘L’ is for lithium
Take lithium batteries, for example. The search term for this major component of electric vehicle batteries has seen interest over the last ten years more than triple, according to Google Trends.
It’s not exactly rocket science to work out why electric vehicle development is booming yet it’s still a relatively modern-day invention. Despite the first completely electric Tesla rolling out back in 2008, we’ve only really recently begun to truly harness and benefit from a hybrid world.
Our esteemed raw material, lithium, however, hasn’t managed to avoid some bumps in the road to a greener future. And they’re not levelling out any time soon. Whilst electric vehicles themselves may be all-singing, all-dancing in terms of their emissions-output, a lot is left to be desired about their manufacturing.
Stabilising a sustainable supply chain
It’s true that a ‘green’ product is only as green as its manufacturing. EV supply chains need energy, and a lot of it. Currently, the UK is completely reliant on lithium supplies via importation; other components are ordered from overseas, requiring transportation that requires energy. Don’t forget, this is all before the parts have even hit the production line.
As the 2030 deadline for petrol and diesel vehicle production begins to close in, manufacturers’ reliance on lithium to power their EV batteries has shot up. We’re at the extent that demand for lithium is forecast to increase by a whopping seven-fold between now and the end of the decade. Present demand sits at around 300k tonnes/year; 2030 could see figures as high as 2 million tonnes/year.
This essential component of modern life is also a vital component in the UK’s greener industrial strategy. So, what’s being done – if anything – to bridge the gap between hungry nations guzzling energy to mine lithium, and the actual problem of over-exploiting this naturally-occurring geopolitical resource?
A brief history of mining in the UK
The UK was once one of the richest mining nations on earth. Vast amounts of coal and iron ore mining drove prosperous steel and energy production, a largely celebrated and quintessential staple of British working life.
In fact, the combination of a materials-rich environment and dedicated workforce meant that a parish in our very own Cornwall once held the reputation as ‘the richest square mile in the Old World’. The 18th and early 19th centuries saw mining activities in Gwennap parish excel, constantly working around 600 steam engines to pump the mines.
Some good things come to an end, unfortunately, and a rise in foreign mining discoveries and activities increased price competitiveness for copper and tin. Cornish mining quickly became unprofitable, and we lost a lot of Cornish miners to activities overseas, where skills were more in-demand.
All eyes on Cornwall
In an exciting change of events, if you were to today drive through St Dennis in Cornwall (just a short distance from Gwennap), you could almost be transported back a couple of hundred years. A steady chug of digging and the sight of a large hole in the ground stimulates a sensory response that signifies a bit of a mining renaissance.
That’s according to Cornish Lithium, anyway, the company with the digger in question in situ. They’re keen to reinstate Cornwall’s rich mining history, with an eco-friendly twist.
Ridding of traditional mining stereotypes (like people covered in dirt, damp and dark working environments, and, well, this scene from Billy Elliot), Cornish Lithium are bulldozing to a new era of raw material extraction.
The next-generation of miners
Their eco-tech is allowing them to focus on developing environmentally sustainable methods for sourcing. At present, their focus is on lithium thanks to its rich Cornish heritage (and soaring demand). Helpfully, Cornwall retained much of the infrastructure required for modern mining, including power lines and rail links, so that’s the first piece of the puzzle complete.
These founders driving our very own mining revolution believe that we might just be sat on enough lithium to fully meet the demand that will come when the UK fully switches to EVs. That’s another part of the puzzle solved; the main difficulty lies in working out the most sustainable and cost-effective way to get it.
By combining historical datasets with satellite and other geophysical data, Cornish Lithium are beginning to reinterpret the potential of existing minerals in the UK. Cornwall is underlaid by a vast amount of granite, known as the Cornubian batholith. It’s one of the world’s only five large-scale bulk lithium-enriched granites, and their range of geoscientists and engineers are working on advancing technologies to extract from this mica minerals.
The electric dream
They say to dream is to dare. To believe. And to achieve electric dreams that surpass even our most wild expectations, sustainable extraction of materials (for batteries, especially) needs to be in the driving seat. The battery technology we’re using right now has a formidable ecological footprint.
Re-evaluating home soil for sustainable and responsible materials extraction seems to be opening new doors to a decarbonised world. Combine this with clean growth and we might just be able to make that transition to a greener economy a little smoother. We stepped up our efforts to buy locally during a pandemic; reckon we can do the same for a greener future? Let us know your thoughts by getting in touch!