Lithium Dreams Bloom on Dormant Industrial Site in UK’s County Durham

A CGI of Weardale Lithium’s proposed lithium extraction plant

In a bid to establish a domestic supply of lithium, a critical mineral for the global energy transition, an innovative natural resources company based in County Durham has submitted plans for a lithium extraction facility at a former industrial site in the rural North Pennines region.

Weardale Lithium Limited, which successfully extracted lithium from geothermal groundwaters in the area for the first time, has proposed constructing a phased lithium processing plant on the brownfield site of an old cement works in Eastgate, near the village of Stanhope.

The plant would use a low-impact, low-carbon extraction method known as direct lithium extraction to recover lithium from the region’s lithium-enriched geothermal brines. The brines would be piped in from existing deep production wells nearby, avoiding the need for tanker transport on local roads.

“This application for a pilot processing plant adjacent to existing wells is the next significant step towards establishing a facility for domestic lithium production from naturally occurring geothermal groundwaters in the North East,” said Stewart Dickson, the chief executive of Weardale Lithium.

If approved, the development would represent a multimillion-pound investment and create 20 to 50 jobs initially, with the potential for around 125 jobs once at full commercial scale producing an estimated 10,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate annually by 2027.

The company estimates the project could generate £1 billion ($1.2 billion) in economic value for the region over that period. It would also help revitalize the long-dormant Eastgate site, which has been derelict since a cement plant there closed more than two decades ago with the loss of over 120 jobs.

“We have long signaled our intent to redevelop the site at Eastgate and breathe new life into the derelict former industrial site,” Mr. Dickson said, “which, if our application is successful, will become a focal point for the U.K. lithium industry together with green energies and technologies co-located.”

Weardale Lithium said it conducted extensive community consultations before submitting the planning application to Durham County Council, receiving positive responses and considerable support for regenerating the site with critical minerals processing for the energy transition.

The application includes comprehensive assessments of the project’s potential environmental impacts, including ecological, noise, air quality, transportation, landscape, heritage and water management evaluations.

If constructed, the Eastgate lithium plant would be one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in Europe, the company said. The site would have ample space to scale up lithium extraction from multiple sources as well as for other sustainable energy infrastructure and business opportunities.

For Matthew Millson, an energy security analyst at Yale University, the project underscores the growing urgency to develop domestic supplies of critical minerals like lithium as countries transition to clean energy technologies.

“The energy transition will require tremendous volumes of lithium for electric vehicle batteries and grid storage,” Mr. Millson said. “Having a secure domestic source of lithium would enhance the U.K.’s energy security and resilience.”

The planning application comes after more than three years of research and testing by Weardale Lithium to identify the optimal direct lithium extraction technology for the region’s geothermal brines. The company plans an initial 12-month field trials stage before constructing the larger pilot plant, which would use renewable energy sources where feasible.

While lithium is typically produced from hard rock mines or salt brines in remote locations like Australia and South America, direct lithium extraction from geothermal brines could provide a more environmentally sustainable source closer to end-user markets, experts say.

“Developing a lithium production hub in an old industrial heartland like County Durham would be an innovative way to meet growing demand for this critical mineral,” said Robert Baylis, a mining analyst at Roskill, a London-based consultancy. “It could also drive economic regeneration in the region.”

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