UK to mine a rich seam of clean-tech minerals

One of the first steps in realising the UK’s plan to improve raw material security is the identification by UK geologists of eight potential areas for the exploration and mining minerals essential for clean energy technologies.

The British Geological Survey, on behalf of the UK Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre, a government-funded organization, has released a report that reveals 18 metals and mineral deposits, including lithium and cobalt, which ministers have identified as being critical to the economic security.

The UK’s mapping of potential mineral deposits is the first time it has identified the geological potential needed to produce the electric car batteries, wind turbines and semiconductors.

Mineral resource geologist Eimear Deady at BGS said that the UK had geological potential to produce critical minerals, but they have been underexplored. Historic exploration focused on major commodities like copper, lead zinc and gold. Critical minerals were not taken into consideration.

Deady called the research “the first comprehensive map of its kind” but warned that any metals discovered would need to be explored further and take 10 to 15 years before they could be used on an industrial level.The BGS stressed that it only considered geology in its study, which means that other factors such as economics, environment or society could hinder the development of resource deposits, even if they were identified through further exploration.

The UK imports nearly all of its essential minerals. The government considers that critical minerals, such as rare Earths and silicon, are crucial for advancing clean energy and advanced technology, including semiconductors. It also believes the security of supply is at risk.

Since Russia cut off gas supplies to Europe last year, concerns about China’s control over the resource supply chains have increased. The UK published its first Critical Raw Materials Strategy in July 2022. It was updated last month to reflect the fiercer geopolitical rivalry following Moscow’s invasion.

Five of the eight areas identified by the BGS are outside England. Two of them are in Scotland. This gives the country the opportunity to secure new mineral resources around Loch Maree, parts of central Highlands, and Aberdeenshire at a time when its hydrocarbon production is dwindling.

Cobalt, manganese and nickel, which are all essential metals for EV battery production, can also be found in parts of Northern Ireland and Wales.

Three zones in England — Cumbria and the North Pennines, and the South West — may contain lithium, antimony, and graphite.

The eight areas were either mined in the past or are currently being explored. Anglo American, a FTSE 100 company, is building a multi-billion pound fertiliser mine near North Yorkshire. This project, which is the largest in recent decades, comes after the UK stopped almost all metal extraction in the 1960s.

TungstenWest, listed on London’s junior Aim Market, is also revitalizing a tungsten-and-tin mine near Plymouth.

Analysts warn that, without improving supply chain resilience, the UK’s attempt to capitalize on geological reserves risks failure due to a lack domestic manufacturing and mineral processing industries.

The UK, in particular, has had difficulty attracting private company investments into battery plants that would be the foundation of the transition by the automobile industry to EVs.

Deady said that if there wasn’t a buyer for the minerals in the UK, they would leave.

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