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Successful tests and extraction of lithium - known as "white gold" - in County Durham could steer the region towards a major breakthrough in electric battery manufacturing.
Lithium is a precious metal used in the production of rechargeable batteries and it has been found in Weardale - one of only two sources in the UK. The lithium is found in geothermal salt water or brine, deep under the surface.
The lithium-rich brine, extracted from a borehole in Weardale, comes from water running under the North Pennines.
Weardale Lithium successfully secured a grant from the Advanced Propulsion Centre, and has been trialling the effectiveness of lithium extraction technologies. Under new proposals, more lithium could be extracted via a plant nearby, and if successful it could create 125 jobs.
What is lithium?
Lithium is an essential component of batteries and a secure supply will be critical for our automotive and energy industries. Critical minerals are irreplaceable in products essential to our everyday lives - such as mobile phones, wind turbines and fighter jets.
Critical minerals are at high risk of supply disruption, because of volatile markets and complex supply chains. By 2040, the world is projected to need four times more critical minerals than it does today.
Stewart Dixon, from Weardale Lithium, said: "Having a supply of lithium in the North East is really important. Because it's the first step of the supply chain all the way through refining, battery manufacturing, car manufacturing, all of which can be done here in the North East.
"The mining heritage of Weardale and wider County Durham is hugely significant. But really what we're doing here is moving mining forward.
"We're really briners not miners, in that sense, in that we're not creating large open pits in the landscape. In fact, the landscape remains unchanged and that's really important to us and it links with our importance for high environmental credentials of, I mean, everything that we do."
A small trial plant will initially be built on the former cement works near Eastgate, close the existing boreholes. The lithium will be separated from the brine, the only by-product being water.
If the trial is a success, the area could be producing a large amount of the estimated 50,000-plus tonnes of lithium a year that the UK will need going forward. There is the potential it could form part of a major supply chain in the North East, with a lithium refining plant being built on Teesside to supply battery and electric car manufacturers.
Experts say this makes the whole supply chain even more environmentally friendly.
Dr Karen Johnston, Professor in Environmental Engineering at Durham University said: "It's really, really exciting and it's even more exciting in terms of the potential future investment that we're bringing to the region with this amazing technology on our doorstep."
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