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Lithium - A Condor Eye's View

Survival of the greenest? How UKs EV ‘revolution’ presently depends on the place where Darwin formed his theories of geologic 'evolution’.

Where I live on the Somerset Levels, we had 25mm of rain overnight. That's not unusual in these parts where total annual rainfall averages 725mm. By contrast, average rainfall in the Salar de Atacama is 2mm per year. And sometimes there is none.

As mentioned in my article last week How UKs Bright Hopes Of A Lithium Highway Hit The Buffers (June 28th 2023) in the Salar de Atacama in Chile where more Lithium brines are recovered than anywhere in the world, 2mln litres of fresh water are required to liberate just 100mt of Lithium (Lithium Carbonate Equivalent).

In 2019, I flew north with a group of all male FIFO (fly in fly out) miners from Santiago to Calama, to visit the Chuquicamata copper mine. Viewing the Salar de Atacama from above, it was possible to see the turquoise blue of the lithium evaporation ponds far below, stark against the dull volcanic brown of the surrounding desert. This Salar is huge - 3000 square kilometres - a closed basin, hemmed in by the Andes to the east and Cordillera to the west.

In 1834, Darwin arrived on the coast towards the end of his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle whose ostensible purpose had been to survey and map the coast of South America, Falklands, Australia, and New Zealand. And, famously, its Captain, Robert FitzRoy, was what we would today call ‘a creationist’.

Arriving here on the coast of northern Chile, Darwin ventured into the mountains while HMS Beagle lay at anchor at Valparaiso (the Valley of Paradise), today a Pacific seaside resort for the rich mining managers of Santiago. He remarked on the ‘fine chaos of mountains’, a feeling which he described as ‘like hearing a chorus of the Messiah in full orchestra’. As Alan Moorehead narrates in his biography, ‘Darwin and The Beagle’, (1969) ‘at 12,000 feet he (Darwin) comes across a bed of fossil seashells.’

How could there be seashells at 12,000 feet? Darwin at last has proof that it is geologic change and not an act of God by which mountains, seas, and lakes, are created. Today, we know it is the subduction of the Nazca plate below the Atlantic plate that slowly created the Andes over millennia and which, still moving, is the reason for earthquakes, whose by-product are the closed basins to which the world now looks to source the lithium for its green revolution of lithium-ion batteries.

These then are the lithium brines that we must now plunder. Here, about 40 metres below the surface of the Salar, the concentration of brines are the weathered remnants of ancient sea beds. To pump these trapped brines to the surface into settling lakes (ponds), is why the fresh water is needed. Proponents boast of the method by which the lithium from the brines is concentrated into lithium carbonate using nothing more than the energy of the sun (solar) for evaporation.

But in the struggle for survival of the greenest, our gain will perhaps be others’ loss. The flamingos, for example, feed on the cyanobacteria to be found in the Salinas of the Atacama, the consumption of which contribute to the pink colour of their feathers. They will be disturbed. And what will replace the fresh water removed in the act of pumping up the brines? Will the increased ground water salinity affect local indigenous people and the fragile flora and fauna that eeks out its life in this environment?

Lithium, Lithium Mining, Cornwall, Green Energy, Atacama, Making batteries, Li-Ion
Drilling for green energy? [Photo courtesy of British Lithium]

It seems it is not just the wildlife that will need to adapt or die – it is us too. And so, I return to the subject of lithium and Cornwall – our potential homegrown solution to seed our new EV supply chain.

Will Tata, an entity so deeply embedded in UK via Jaguar Land Rover, knit together our UK supply line potential? There is talk of battery-making at Bridgwater intrinsic to the green highway starting with lithium mined and processed in Cornwall. But what about the cathode manufacturing materials requiring cobalt and processes of sintering? And the technology to make the crystal powders? The UK government has spent money which has assisted feasibility. But what is really needed is for the end user to get involved. Will Tata go that one stage further and invest in their future, and ours, by taking stakes in Cornish Lithium and British Lithium which would cause private investors and pension funds to pile in?

We know that Chinese state-led investment into the EV supply chain worked. I wonder whether the capitalist model will show it can work too. Darwin is speaking to us now across almost two centuries. Will our car industry adapt...or die?

Anthony Lipmann

Published 05.07.23 on

Works at British Lithium in Cornwall


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