This is the new age of exploration. This is the new height of collaboration. Scientists and engineers from the space and mining sectors have joined with business whizzes to look for lithium in Cornwall.
Why look for lithium?
The increasing global effort to overcome our addiction to fossil fuels is driving the need for ‘green technologies’ and, therefore, the mining of ‘green metals’ such as lithium. At the forefront of these technologies are electric cars, where lithium-ion rechargeable batteries are a core component.
Where is it?
Most of the world’s lithium comes from large amounts of brines (salty water) evaporating in arid environments within salt lakes such as Salar de Atacama in Chile and Clayton Valley in Nevada. Although the UK is a small, wet island without any such spectacular salt lakes, it has been known for a long time that there may be brines with copious amounts of lithium in areas such as Cornwall. It is important to note that these geothermal waters are actually located deep underground and have only been noticed when the old Cornish tin mines used to get flooded. As the brines cannot be directly seen, a new and innovative approach is needed to start exploring where to find them.
What we’re doing
A curious and passionate team of industry experts and academics, led by the Satellite Applications Catapult and funded by Innovate UK, are using Earth observation (EO) data to look for lithium in Cornwall. (Earth observation in this article refers to both satellite and airborne remote sensing data.) Even if we cannot directly see these brines, there may be clues that give an indication to the potential existence of them. For example, the existence of salty water with dissolved lithium may have an effect on the overlying vegetation – this would be bad if the concentration is too high, but may actually help plant growth at low concentrations!
Generally, the existence of the hot fluids often leaves a scar on the pre-existing rock, turning the original hard minerals into different types of much softer clay minerals (alteration minerals). The path of these hot fluids are channelled by the surrounding faults (large rock fractures). The location and composition of this kind of scarring from hot fluids and the faults can be detected using different types of satellite data. Armed with geological (alteration minerals, fault locations), vegetation, magnetic and temperature anomaly data generated from EO, the different clues that may point to the existence of deep lithium brines can be put in context and help narrow down the search area.
Another parallel ambition of the project is to make sure that we keep a close eye on the natural environment and that any future mining activity happens with environmental concerns held high in priority. The use of EO is particularly helpful here, because it allows us to look at both the current and past state of the environment. This means the location and health of waterbodies and vegetation can be monitored and assessed across time – all the way back to the 1980s.
It is important to mention that the UK is one of the hardest places to do this type of EO-based exploration, simply because a lot of the important rocks and structures are often hidden underneath vegetation, roads and cities! We are entering unknown territories here, where we are attempting to look for clues to something deep underground (lithium brines) and these vital clues are often hidden. To guide us through the strings of hidden clues are a highly diversely skilled team from eleven research organisations, companies, consultants and academics led by the Satellite Applications Catapult. I truly believe that this kind of collaboration is the new footprint of innovation.
An important part of working with EO data is to actually go on the ground to check the results from data analysis. We have some exciting preliminary results from our EO-based work and have spent this week in Cornwall checking out these areas of interest. Watch this space, and follow us on social media, for more updates on our project!
Maral Bayaraa, EO Specialist, Satellite Applications Catapult
Press Release (25 January 2018): New study looking for lithium ‘fingerprint’ from space.
This project has been funded through a grant of £850k from Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency and the team comprises experts from the British Geological Survey, Camborne School of Mines (part of the University of Exeter), Carrak Consulting, North Coast Consulting, Cornish Lithium Ltd, CGG, Terrabotics, Telespazio Vega UK, Geo Performa and Dares Technology.