UK’s first large-scale lithium refinery chooses location as race for ‘white gold’ intensifies


A lithium-ion battery photographed at a Volkswagen facility in Germany. Lithium-ion batteries are crucial components in electric vehicles.
Jan Woitas | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

LONDON — A facility described as the U.K.’s “first large-scale lithium refinery” will be located in the north of England, with those behind the project hoping its output will hit roughly 50,000 metric tons each year once up and running.

On Monday, a statement released by Green Lithium on the website of the London Stock Exchange said construction of the £600 million (around $687 million) project was expected to last three years, with commissioning slated for 2025.

The refinery will be based at Teesport, a major port on Teesside. Green Lithium said its product would “go into the supply chain for lithium-ion batteries, energy storage, grid stabilisation and EV batteries.”

Alongside its use in cell phones, computers, tablets and a host of other gadgets synonymous with modern life, lithium — which some have dubbed “white gold” — is crucial to the batteries that power electric vehicles.

The U.K. wants to stop the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars and vans by 2030. It will require, from 2035, all new cars and vans to have zero tailpipe emissions. The European Union, which the U.K. left on Jan. 31, 2020, is pursuing similar targets.

With demand for lithium rising, European economies are attempting to shore up their own supplies and reduce dependency on other parts of the world.

In a translation of her State of the Union speech last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas.”

As well as addressing security of supply, von der Leyen, who switched between several languages during her speech, also stressed the importance of processing.

“Today, China controls the global processing industry,” she said. “Almost 90% … of rare earth[s] and 60% of lithium are processed in China.”

“So we will identify strategic projects all along the supply chain, from extracting to refining, from processing to recycling,” she added. “And we will build up strategic reserves where supply is at risk.”

Back in the U.K., Business Secretary Grant Shapps said Green Lithium’s refinery would “deliver more than 1,000 jobs during its construction and 250 long-term, high-skill jobs for local people when in operation.”

“It is also allowing us to move quickly to secure our supply chains of critical minerals, as we know that geopolitical threats and global events beyond our control can severely impact the supply of key components that could delay the rollout of electric vehicles in the UK,” he added.

The news about Green Lithium comes after Britishvolt, another firm looking to establish a foothold in the electric vehicle sector, said it had secured short-term funding that would enable it to stave off administration for the time being. The company said its employees had also agreed to a pay cut for November.

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