Increasing investment and promising lithium discoveries in Ireland this decade have raised hopes of a close source for Europe’s nascent battery supply chain.
Irish Base Metals Ltd. found traces of lithium in local granites while exploring for base metals in 1972. But the prospectivity was ignored because “lithium was not of interest” and “not really a commercial mineral” at the time, according to John Teeling, who was a key adviser to Irish Base Metals and is now chairman of Irish explorer Arkle Resources PLC.
The European Union, which relies on Australia for 87% of its raw lithium imports, is looking to boost exploration in line with the strategic objectives of its Critical Raw Materials Act. The EU-funded GreenPeg project identified southeast Ireland as one of three sites to study pegmatite ore deposits.
“Many new occurrences have been located and drill-tested in recent decades” in Ireland, and there has been “an upsurge in activity since 2020,” according to Sean Finlay, director of Geoscience Ireland, a network of 35 companies active in domestic and international markets.
“There is significant potential for economic discoveries. Ireland has a well-developed regulatory system for mineral development, and the importance of lithium as a critical raw material is well recognized by both the Irish government and by the EU,” Finlay said in an email interview. “Environmental considerations are at the forefront of minerals policy and of the exploration companies themselves.”
‘Gut feeling’ of more lithium
Ireland was Russia’s third-largest alumina supplier in 2022 and home to Europe’s biggest zinc-producing mine in Boliden AB’s Tara project until it was suspended in July 2023.
Minerals exploration in the country has been mainly been focused on copper, lead, zinc and gold in recent decades, according to Teeling. S&P Global Market Intelligence data shows only two established lithium projects.
Arkle Resources discovered pegmatites in its Mine River gold project in November 2022 in a new search for lithium, west of the Avalonia project, which is held in a joint venture established in 2014 by Canada’s International Lithium Corp. and China’s Ganfeng Lithium Group Co. Ltd.
“If exploration in Ireland is successful, it is more likely to contribute a number of small- to medium-size bodies similar to the clusters that are being explored and discovered elsewhere in Europe,” John Harrop, senior project geologist at Canadian consultancy Coast Mountain Geological Group Ltd., said in an email interview. His group works on the Avalonia project.
“With several lithium processing plants being planned around Europe, Ireland could become a contributor to their supply feed. I have a gut feeling that there could well be more important things to discover under cover. Prospecting discoveries continue to be made in the belt by the companies working there. I don’t think the story of the Irish lithium belt is complete yet,” Harrop said.
Building skills, community support
While Ireland has a long mining history, it lacks people and expertise that will be needed to grow a lithium sector.
Arkle Resources has struggled to “find geologists who are experienced in recognizing hard rock lithium,” Teeling said.
Technical difficulties have also emerged as mineralization is primarily through geological cover, with very little outcrop. “We have not improved our ability to look through cover as much as I would have liked to over the time we have been working there,” Harrop said.
Canada’s Global Battery Metals Ltd. discovered near-surface lithium mineralization in trench samples in December 2023 in a 135-kilometer geological trend of known lithium-bearing pegmatite occurrences centered on those that Ganfeng is exploring. The high grades found near the surface can increase efficiency and lower drilling costs, signaling “district-scale opportunities ahead” that could help secure a commercial partner in developing the prospects, Global Battery Metals CEO Michael Murphy said in a Dec. 12 statement.
Community education will also be key for a new lithium sector to build community support, which is critical for government approvals.
“In Ireland, there is a significant factor of organized disinformation and resulting local protest that is well aware of how to play the government in all resource sectors to effectively shut down their already small (and shrinking) teams and this extends the process unpredictably,” Harrop said.
Eoin O’Grady, a geologist and community relations officer for Coast Mountain Geological, sees a “big disparity between how informed people are about exploration and how advanced the project is. In the broadest terms, you have a public relations campaign on your hands with scientific communication at the core.”
“I think there is no limit to the amount of engagement that can be done because communities and organizations are very eager to be kept informed,” O’Grady said. “This is probably the most important factor in developing the social license to operate.”
Source: S&P Global