South West bids to be at forefront of sustainable UK battery production

February 22, 2022

Cornwall’s emerging technology metals industry is gearing up to provide critical supplies of lithium to a planned battery gigafactory in Somerset, in a move that would put the South West of England at the forefront of sustainable battery production in the UK.

The team behind the 613-acre Gravity development site near Bridgwater recently toured potential lithium production facilities at Cornish Lithium and British Lithium in Cornwall to learn more about harnessing the necessary battery materials supply chain right on their doorstep. This has included discussions with Advanced Energy Minerals, a company investigating the possibility of building a South West based supply of high purity alumina – another essential component of batteries.

Lithium, christened the ‘irreplaceable’ element of the electric era by the VW Group, is one of the vital components of batteries for electric vehicles and global demand is soaring as the world moves to decarbonise its transport systems. Like the EU, the UK is currently totally reliant on imports of lithium – mainly from China, South America and Australia – and with sales of new petrol and diesel cars being banned in the UK by 2030, there is an urgent need to accelerate the transition to zero-emission transportation.

Cornwall, which has a history of mining dating back to the Bronze Age, sits on one of the most lithium enriched bodies of granite in the world and is attracting international attention due to its desirable location in Britain. Work to develop an ethical, sustainable lithium supply is rapidly accelerating and such efforts have already received backing from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) via the UK Government’s Getting Building Fund, and from Innovate UK.

Gravity Co-Founder and Chief Executive Tom Curtis said: “We have international interest in Gravity for electric vehicle and battery manufacture, and very close by in Cornwall are significant lithium deposits which are being developed using sustainable low carbon methods. This enables us to offer a sustainable, ethically sourced local supply of lithium delivered by a direct rail connection, or a short journey by motorway to site. This will add yet another critical element to Gravity, helping to attract a globally significant operator.”

Gravity’s recent meeting with Cornwall’s tech metals industry was supported by the two LEPs that cover Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Both LEPs are investing in the critical infrastructure needed to realise the South West’s low carbon ambitions.

The Heart of the South West LEP has supported preparation of the Gravity site with a £3.9m investment from the UK Government’s Local Growth Fund. The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP is investing £2.9m from the UK’s Getting Building Fund to build a pilot geothermal lithium extraction plant in Cornwall which is on course to be commissioned by the end of next month.

In addition to the grant investment for its geothermal direct lithium extraction plant, the company has secured £680,000 from the Automotive Transformation Fund, a collaboration between the UK Government and automotive industry, toward a hard rock extraction plant near St Austell.

Karl Tucker, Chair of the Heart of the South West LEP for Devon and Somerset, said: “We want our region to be the greenest in the UK and at the forefront of the response to climate change. By bringing these opportunities in Cornwall and Somerset together we can achieve a massive boost to our clean growth ambitions, creating new high value jobs and opportunities for future generations of young people in our region.”

Mark Duddridge, Chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP, said: “No-one should underestimate the collective will to make this happen in the South West. By melding Cornwall’s tech metal reserves with advanced manufacturing at Gravity we can create a new industry with potentially thousands of jobs, and make a major contribution to the UK’s net-zero targets.”

Stephen Rushworth, Cabinet Member for Economy at Cornwall Council, added: “Cornwall is well placed to help lead the country’s de-carbonisation programme through the production of lithium for environmentally friendly transport. It accords very much with our own ambitions. Locally sourced lithium will ensure a secure supply to the ambitious new factory and will also create jobs and investment opportunities in Cornwall well into the future. This is very much to be welcomed.”

The UK Government has recognised the strategic importance of Cornwall’s lithium resources, highlighting the domestic extraction and processing of this ‘critical mineral’ as a priority in last year’s security and defence review.

It is also backing St Austell-based British Lithium with a £2.9m grant from the Government’s Sustainable Innovation Fund to build a pilot plant to demonstrate its novel, sustainable technology for the production of lithium. British Lithium hopes to produce 21,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate a year, enough to support the production of half a million electric vehicles.

British Lithium Director Andrew Smith said he was excited at the prospect of large-scale battery production being established in the South West: “We look forward to the local supply chain being built out to support the Government’s drive to transform the UK motor industry to electric vehicles. We can offer a sustainable, ethically sourced supply of this critical raw material, which will suit just in time battery and car manufacturing, and reduce imports from abroad. We are particularly thrilled to be offering well paid long term jobs in Cornwall”.

Cornish Lithium Chief Executive Jeremy Wrathall believes the South West can be at the forefront of clean battery production in the UK: “Cornish Lithium is working to extract lithium from both hard rock and from lithium-rich geothermal waters that circulate deep underground. We believe that this could provide the foundation for a new, hi-tech battery metals industry in Cornwall which could in turn support battery and electric vehicle manufacturing in the South West and in the UK as a whole.”

Gravity has been earmarked as an ideal site for a UK gigafactory to produce batteries for electric vehicles. The site has a direct link to the M5, confirmed plans for a freight and passenger rail halt, and can offer tax breaks to occupiers through its Enterprise Zone status. It is also covered by a Local Development Order which includes consent for large scale advanced manufacturing.

The Faraday Institution estimates that the UK will require eight gigafactories by 2040. Each would employ between 2,000 and 3,000 people directly and support a further 7,000 to 8,000 jobs in the supply chain. The Institution says without domestic battery production the UK could see much of its car industry migrate overseas, with the loss of more than 100,000 jobs.