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The growing demand for clean energy sources could mean a resurgence in mining

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine caused a spike in energy prices worldwide. As we've noted, Russia is a major exporter of oil and gas, and officials in the U.S. and Europe are looking for ways to reduce Russian profits from those exports. One side effect - the race is also on to find more reliable domestic sources of green energy materials, such as lithium, an element used in electric car batteries. Willem Marx has this report from the U.K., where a small mining boom for lithium is already underway.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: British geologist Robin Kelly's spent his career searching for the right variety of rock - first in Africa, focused on gold, zinc, copper, now much closer to home, on a windswept hillside in Cornwall, England, where he works for a firm called British Lithium, focused on a rock called lithium mica granite.

ROBIN KELLY: We've spent all these years conducting exploration work to really understand that. So we're now at the point where we believe we have an economic body of lithium mica granite.

MARX: Less than 1% of the rock is metal, but it still makes economic sense to mine because of soaring prices for lithium, a crucial component in the race to electrify our world. And the extraction technique here in Cornwall is unique, says the company's CEO Andrew Smith.

ANDREW SMITH: Lithium is not rare. There are many occurrences, but what we need to do is translate that into a final product. So there's a number of chemical stages that we've got to go through.

MARX: Heat, electricity and quicklime help extract the lithium. And since they're digging in old, abandoned mine pits and using water, not acid, to refine the lithium, the environmental impact is far less significant than usual. By rehearsing this extraction process on a small scale now, researchers like Katerina Omelchuk from Ukraine hope they'll soon be working on a much larger project driven by global demand for better batteries.

KATERINA OMELCHUK: Now we want something bigger, larger, quicker, stronger with more performance, so we have to work on this.

MARX: Despite some $4 million in British government funding, Smith says policymakers should pay even more attention to battery metals like lithium.

SMITH: If we were to transition our economy away from hydrocarbons to electric vehicles, we're going to need those raw ingredients. And if we can source them domestically, I think that should be part of government policy.

MARX: Mining was once central to Cornwall's economy, but in recent decades, almost all of it stopped. Now these new technologies could help restart this industry and help the U.K. end its reliance on countries like China, which controls most of the world's lithium market. Steve Double's a member of Parliament representing Cornwall's historic mining region and says more government support for mining could create local jobs.

STEVE DOUBLE: Both Brexit but also the pandemic has really put a spotlight on supply chains and some of the fragility that there is in our supply chains and also how we are so heavily dependent on one part of the world.

MARX: The lithium mined in Cornwall will help reduce carbon emissions, powering not just cars but possibly trains, too. The Japanese giant Hitachi is building electric trains that will run between London and Cornwall. Jim Brewin heads Hitachi in the U.K.

JIM BREWIN: This is why, when governments set targets like we've seen in the U.K., in Japan, in the U.S., these really change how we look at what we need to offer to society through the work that we do and batteries the one step forward. And the trials that we're doing here can be a global offering.

MARX: Brewin says Hitachi's worldwide trains will rely on British-made battery technology since local production can also help decarbonize supply chains.

The batteries are built at a business in northern England called Turntide funded by American billionaires - Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg - and Britain's own innovation agency. In large warehouses, Turntide's team develops battery systems that power trains, cherry pickers and potentially even mining machines to be sold around the globe.

CHRIS PENNISON: That on the end is where we test them.

MARX: Chris Pennison, senior VP of operations at Turntide, says his company gets a lot of support from the local and central governments but insists this battery revolution must remain a priority.

PENNISON: We need to make sure that we're ahead of the competitors, the other countries. We have to make sure that we can attract talent with what we're doing and how we're doing it. But we also need to know if we're going to play in that arena, we have to support the change that the country has to go through.

MARX: For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in St. Austell, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx