Lithium may fuel a mining revival in England’s Cornwall

Stephen Beard Oct 19, 2020
Heard on:
The harbor at Mullion Cove, Cornwall, United Kingdom. Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images

Lithium may fuel a mining revival in England’s Cornwall

Stephen Beard Oct 19, 2020
Heard on:
The harbor at Mullion Cove, Cornwall, United Kingdom. Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images

Some museums are staid, stuffy and static. But not the King Edward Mine Museum in Camborne, Cornwall.

This museum contains a working tin mill that vividly recreates the heyday of tin mining in the county in all its thunderous, clanging and clattering glory. There are half a dozen antiquated machines still operating and providing a feast for the eyes and ears of thousands of tourists every year.

The star exhibit, and the noisiest of all, is the Californian Stamps, so called because it was taken, some time in the late 19th century, from the Californian gold fields.

“It’s a set of five 850-pound heads,”  said the museum’s mill manager Nigel MacDonald, proudly showing off the huge device. “They pulverize the ore so the tin can be separated out. These heads, which were originally powered by steam, do 300 drops a minute.”  

Nigel MacDonald, King Edward Mine Museum’s mill manager. (Credit: Mimisse Beard)

The museum conjures up a distant past when Cornwall was one of the world’s most prolific mining centers.

By the early 1800s, one-third of the world’s copper came from the county and later it became the preeminent source of tin. But those days are long gone — the last Cornish tin mine closed more than 20 years ago.

Nevertheless, a renaissance in mineral extraction in the county could soon be underway. Cornwall could be poised for another mining boom, with an ultramodern, high-tech twist.

The mineral concerned is lithium, a vital and scarce component in the batteries needed to drive electric vehicles and store the intermittent energy from renewables like solar and wind.

A company called Cornish Lithium announced it had found what it called “a globally significant grade” of the metal in underground water pumped up to the surface just north of the old mining town of Redruth. This is the 21st-century equivalent of striking oil.

“Without lithium, there is no real transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy,” said the company’s founder and CEO Jeremy Wrathall. “So it is the most important element out there at the moment. It’s exciting times for us.”

Doubly exciting, he said, because his company could be riding to Europe’s rescue: Europe currently produces no lithium for batteries — most of the world’s supply is currently extracted in Chile, Argentina and Australia, and most of it is processed in China.

“So, we are very strategically vulnerable,” Wrathall added.

His company’s find could also be of enormous strategic importance for the U.K. as it wrangles with its former European partners over a trade deal now that it has formally left the European Union.  If it were to become Europe’s principal source of lithium — and supplier of electric batteries — the U.K. could acquire an important bargaining chip.

Lucy Crane, senior geologist with Cornish Lithium. (Courtesy Lucy Crane)

There is another, environmental bonus. The additional beauty of the lithium that his company has discovered is the temperature of the underground water or brine that’s carrying the metal.

“It’s hot,” said Cornish Lithium’s senior geologist Lucy Crane. “The geothermal gradient is a lot warmer down here than in other parts of the country so we have a lot more potential for geothermal energy in Cornwall,” she said.    

The prospect is environmentally enticing: Extract the lithium and use the hot brine to power — carbon-free — the plant and perhaps a battery-making factory too. Crane insists that there is no danger that a new wave of mineral extraction in Cornwall would spoil the county’s beautiful landscape and undermine its all-important tourist industry.

“We’re not talking about a big mine. It would be just an industrial unit, low-rise, probably equivalent to the size of a small- or medium-sized supermarket. So that would sit really well in the existing industrial sites around Cornwall,” she said.

Deborah Reeve, mayor of Redruth, with a bust of one of the town’s most illustrious residents, William Murdoch, inventor and locomotive pioneer. (Credit: Mimisse Beard)

In the nearby town of Redruth, Mayor Deborah Reeve has warmly welcomed the prospect of lithium mining in the area and the economic benefits it could bring. The mayor hopes that lithium will reverse the long steep decline the town has suffered since tin mining came to an end in the last century. 

“There are pockets of real deprivation in this town,” she said. “Cornwall, as a whole, is one of the poorest parts of Europe. This lithium find could be a really exciting opportunity for the town and for the county.”

Lee Collins, Redruth greengrocer. (Credit: Mimisse Beard)

However, her enthusiasm does not seem to be widely shared among the people of Redruth. There’s no buzz about the potential riches on the doorstep and certainly no sign of “lithium fever.” 

Lee Collins, who runs a greengrocer’s shop and a clothing store in town, said he’d not heard any of his customers even mention the prospect of a lithium bonanza.

“I think it’s because every so often you hear, ‘We’re going to start mining for XYZ’ and nothing really comes of it,” Collins said. “But once it starts producing some money and jobs, if it does, once we start seeing something come of it, then absolutely people will start talking about it.”

Former tin miner Paul Bray is an exception. He’s already enthusing about the mineral find. 

“I think it’s great. I really, really do,” he said. “Because the whole area needs a lift. I think in terms of value this will be as big as tin or copper because we’re all going to need lithium.”

Paul Bray, former tin miner. (Credit: Mimisse Beard)

He’s also relieved that Cornwall’s next breed of  “miners” — the workers who would staff the plants extracting the lithium from water pumped up to the surface — will not face the same conditions he and his fellow tin miners faced underground.

“I spent most of my time in shorts and just Wellington boots, and my helmet and lamp. The rest of the time I was stripped right down because it was roasting. I was taking five salt tablets a day just to replenish the salts I was losing,” Bray said.

Cornish Lithium reckons it could start production within three to five years. It won’t say how much of the metal it thinks it can mine. But Cornwall is sitting on more than 70 miles of granite, one of the largest such blocks on the planet. And, it turns out, the hottest of hot rocks in the 21st century.

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