UK’s lithium mining hotspots could be identified using satellite technology

Areas with a strong lithium mining potential - a key element found in most rechargeable batteries - could be identified from space by observing broad changes in vegetation and surface minerals.

A new study from Satellite Applications Catapult, which was created by the UK government’s Innovate UK, found that anomalies related to vegetation parameters such as health and temperature were correlated with rock alteration and the presence of geological faults.

This in turn could be used to predict where the most likely sources of lithium would occur underground.

The study focused on two areas of Cornwall which featured hot brine springs, as it’s thought that lithium is likely to be found in and around those areas.

Global demand for lithium, a vital component in ‘next-generation’ batteries for electric vehicles and storage for renewable power, is expected to grow by around 400 per cent by 2025.

This technology could provide the UK with a domestic source of the metal, which has been described as ‘the new gasoline’ due to its potential to help in the shift to low-carbon energy supplies.

The study used satellites to detect changes in vegetation and surface minerals, which, when combined with geological data, could indicate potential locations of lithium in Cornwall, an area once famous for its tin mines.

This kind of remote sensing could significantly cut the cost of lithium exploration and also reduce the environmental impact of mining by better targeting prospective sites, the team behind the research said.

Along with other measures such as heat mapping and geological faults, the team looked for potential indicators of lithium in vegetation cover; for example, how healthy plants are, to help indicate where hotspots of lithium might be located.

Prospectors could then drill down into the ground to pump out the hot, salty water which contains lithium and extract the metal, rather than needing large-scale open-cast mines.

The team have also used the same range of satellite data to create a map showing where important habitats, flood risk areas and towns are situated to help with environmental monitoring of future mining.

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.”

Jeremy Wrathall, founder and chief executive of project partner Cornish Lithium, said: “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.”

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