Manchester company fuelling UK battery revolution marks milestone

Dr Seb Leaper, left, and Stewart Dickson

Watercycle Technologies, a Manchester-based deep tech company focused on developing sustainable, high-yield, low-cost, mineral extraction and water treatment systems, has achieved a milestone, it said

For the first time it has successfully produced lithium carbonate from naturally occurring geothermal brines in the North East of England.

This represents a major step forward in the UK’s ambitions to produce a domestic supply of lithium to power the domestic energy transition and the Government’s goals of achieving net zero.

At its laboratory in The Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) in Manchester, the company applied its proprietary direct lithium extraction and crystallisation process (DLEC) to produce lithium carbonate crystals from brines, extracted from Weardale Lithium’s existing geothermal boreholes at Eastgate, in County Durham.

The DLEC process selectively removes lithium ions from complex brines using mixed matrix hollow fibre adsorption membranes followed by concentration, polishing and crystallisation stages.

It is a low-impact, low-carbon and low-water usage method of extracting lithium from brines which Weardale intends to augment using power from renewable energy sources. Being an end-to-end solution enables resource owners to extract the highest possible value from a resource.

By working with an end-to-end technology provider, it is not necessary to negotiate multiple contracts with several companies that only offer one part of the process. In addition, it negates the need to ship lithium concentrates for refinement elsewhere. Shipping concentrates – comprised largely of water – is expensive and increases the travel miles of the product.

Lithium is a critical raw material used in the production of electric vehicle batteries. To accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles and meet net-zero targets, the UK needs a secure supply of lithium as there is currently no commercial lithium production or refining in the UK or Europe.

Consequently, this is a significant milestone as it advances the possibility of producing domestic lithium and, in turn, advancing an integrated battery-supply chain industrial hub in the North East of England. Lithium produced and refined in the UK will confer transportation cost advantages, supply assurances and an environmental-premium over foreign suppliers.

This milestone enables Weardale to progress its step-wise plans for scaling up trials of lithium extraction using the DLE technologies of Watercycle Technologies, supporting and enabling the investment decision for the construction and operation of a pilot-demonstration plant for test-scale production of lithium.
Commercial production of approximately 10,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per year is being targeted which has the potential to directly generate around 125 jobs. At commercial scale, Weardale estimates that £1bn of gross economic value could be generated for the North East region.

Dr Seb Leaper, CEO of Watercycle Technologies, said: “These positive results on lithium carbonate extraction are fantastic news. By utilising our propriety membrane technology, we are the first company to produce lithium carbonate from brines in the North East.

“Importantly, our ground-breaking DLEC technology produces zero waste, is water-neutral and requires 95% less land than conventional lithium extraction processes.”

He added: “Furthermore, once the extraction has taken place, all that will be left after operations are a few manhole covers and so the natural beauty of the Weardale region will be preserved for future generations. Net zero transition is fundamentally impossible with existing supplies of critical minerals, yet traditional modes of extracting them are themselves environmentally damaging. Our technology can put the UK at the forefront of the sustainable mineral recovery industry and become a major contributor to future economic growth.”

Watercycle co-founder and CTO, Dr Ahmed Abdelkarim, said: “Our technology has taken years of development and these successful results with Weardale underpin the efficacy of our DLEC solution.

“With Weardale we believe we can make a huge difference to providing economic benefits in a truly environmental fashion, which underpin our business model. Furthermore, we are not only successfully partnering with lithium brine developers, but we are also making fantastic headway in the extraction of multiple critical minerals from spent batteries.

“Indeed, we recently produced commercial grade lithium carbonate and graphite from black mass. These are exciting times, and we look forward to working with our partners and delivering high tech mineral extraction solutions.”

Stewart Dickson, CEO of Weardale Lithium, said: “The supply of domestic lithium is of strategic importance to the UK’s net zero ambitions and production of high-value batteries for electric vehicles.

“Utilising Watercycle’s technology, we have taken a significant step forward in establishing that the naturally occurring geothermal brines are amenable for lithium production and validated a number of direct lithium extraction processes.”