Study reveals it is possible to identify potential lithium “hot-spots” from space

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A team of scientists have proved that satellites can detect characteristics in vegetation and minerals on the surface, which when combined with geological data, could indicate potential locations for the discovery of lithium.

Lithium is a vital component of “next generation” batteries which will be used in electric vehicles and for the storage of renewable power. As a result of such developments global demand for lithium is forecast to grow by around 400% by 2025. Lithium has now become a vital metal for technologies which enable a rapid transition towards a low carbon economy.

This research project focussed on the development of new and innovative satellite-based techniques which have the potential to reduce the cost of lithium exploration substantially. Such remote sensing techniques can also reduce the environmental impact of exploration by enabling better targeting of prospective areas.

Experts from eleven organisations were involved in the study, which focused on two areas of Cornwall. The approach was to develop combinations of EO techniques which, when used together, could identify target sites for further work within the selected areas. Amongst other techniques, such as heat mapping, the team looked for potential indicators of lithium in vegetation cover by investigating its impact on plants. Anomalies related to vegetation parameters such as health and temperature were correlated with rock alteration and the presence of geological faults. Using such techniques, the team was able to better predict areas that may host lithium bearing brines below the surface and to create a prospectivity map.

The team used data at different resolutions from Landsat, Sentinel-2, WorldView-3, GeoEye-1, ASTER, Sentinel-1, ALOS-1 and TerraSAR-X satellites, along with ground survey data from the British Geological Survey and radiometric and magnetics data.

Using the same data sets, the team has also developed a digital environmental baseline map to show priority habitats, flood risk areas and urban settlements to act as an environmental monitoring tool. The average cost of environmental monitoring and complying with environmental regulations for a mining operation is estimated to be around 5% of total project costs. The tool developed by the team could provide the independent data required for compliance and monitor changes in a cost-effective way.

Dr Cristian Rossi, Principal Earth Observation Specialist, Satellite Applications Catapult, who led the study said:

“We are very excited by the findings of this project. This approach to lithium exploration which includes the estimation of multiple surface indicators has not been attempted before and may be highly applicable across the wider mining industry. We have shown that by combining a range of satellite data and expertise in UK mining, geology and Earth Observation, we can accurately map the environmental baseline and also delineate areas where lithium is more likely to be present at depth.

“These are the first digital maps that display potential lithium hotspots for initial investigation and validation. We are now looking at how we can improve this new tool which is attracting international interest from major lithium producers worldwide.”

Project partner Cornish Lithium Ltd will be working with the team to build on this initial research to help reduce the cost of exploration in the region.

Jeremy Wrathall, Founder & CEO, Cornish Lithium Ltd, said:

“Cornish Lithium is delighted to have been involved in this ground-breaking study. The results of the study, and our collaboration with other project partners, has enabled our company to significantly advance our exploration programme and to better prioritise areas on which to focus our exploration for lithium bearing brines in Cornwall.”

The team is now exploring options for the next phase to increase the understanding of the sub-surface environment. Such understanding is considered vital if the UK is to develop a domestic source of lithium.

The project was funded through a grant of £850k from Innovate UK. The team was led by the Satellite Applications Catapult and included the British Geological Survey, the Camborne School of Mines (part of the University of Exeter), Carrak Consulting, Cornish Lithium Ltd, North Coast Consulting, CGG, Terrabotics, Telespazio Vega UK, Geo Performa and Dares Technology.

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