21 Aug Cornwall’s latest source of mineral wealth:lithium trapped in underwater hot springs
Just a few yards from the site of the original “lithium spring” that was discovered in 1864, seven miles south-west of Truro, Cornwall, stands an old engine house,one of several monuments dotted around the county that lie testament to its former tin-mining industry.
And mining seems set to return here, thanks to Jeremy Wrathall and his company, Cornish Lithium,which has just won £1m of investment after securing the rights to what it believes is the largest unified mineral exploration programme in the history of Poldark country.
“Underneath our feet is a rabbit warren of minerals,” he tells i on a visit to one of three sites the firm has earmarked for exploratory drilling. “I remember the word sofa friend of mine who used to work in [one of the nearby tin-mining sites] South Crofty. He said ‘we’ve got everything here, we’ve got tin, copper, zinc, lead and even lithium coming in to the mine’.“I began doing some research into lithium and found it wasn’t just in South Crofty, it was all over the place.
”Cornish Lithium has acquired the rights to explore a 300sq km area centred on the traditional mining areas of Camborne, Redruth and St Day. The idea is to drill boreholes at least 400m deep to access “brines” carrying lithium-rich hot water. If enough lithium is found to make the project viable, processing plants will be built and the metal will be extracted, creating up to 100 hi-tech jobs per plant.
The masts of the drills themselves will be around 35ft high–just below the height of the trees surrounding us,and take up not much more of the woodland than the 10m pond at our feet does. The water will be taken to a nearby processing site, the size of a small supermarket.
“In terms of environmental damage–nothing..You’ve got the drill with a small shed, pump ,on top of it and then the processing plant somewhere we can pump it to in an industrial location. That’s the idea,” says Jeremy,54, a mining engineer who trained at the prestigious Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall. “I worked in the gold mines in South Africa, and as a City analyst,but that’s why I’ve had a passion for Cornwall all my life.
“It’s not fracking,” he says, keen to dispel any fears any locals may have when they hear the words “mining company”. “We’re drilling holes into known structures which will hopefully flow. So we don’t need to open them up, as they do in fracking.
It’s a naturally occurring saline spring, so we’re just exploiting that spring, which should continue to renew itself – so potentially we’ll have a renewable source of lithium. It has been there 300 million years already, after all.
”Cornwall’s mining industry dates back to prehistoric times and its abundance of metals has been suggested as one of the reasons why the Romans invaded Britain–but it collapsed in the last century.
“We won’t be rebuilding this,” Jeremy laughs, pointing to the old engine house behind us. “This contained a huge steam engine which pumped water in and out, water which actually had a significant amount of lithium in. They would have been practically drinking the stuff.”
Cornish Lithium’s directors Derek Linfield (left) and Jeremy Wrathall plan to start Europe’s only lithium mine
Actually extracting the lithium will be one of the biggest challenges, although new techniques that have been developed over the last five years will enable Cornish Lithium to extract it directly. Elsewhere in the world, mining companies have had to send the pumped water through enormous solar evaporation plants, which can have a significant impact on water resources and ecology. The new techniques are more compact and environmentally friendly.
“People always say there’s plenty of lithium around, which there is, but there’s plenty of iron ore –it’s just getting the lithium out, and making it economically worthwhile, that’s the difficult part.”
Lithium–dubbed “white petroleum”–is used in the rapidly growing market for electric cars and rechargeable batteries in everything from mobile phones to cordless vacuums. Its value has soared in recent years, with its use in modern technology seeing lithium surge in price on the Chines emarket from about $7,000(£5,500) a tonne in 2015 to $20,000 a tonne today.
It is estimated that the global market for lithium stands at a potential £70bn, with the need for lithium potentially increasing four-fold by 2025.
Most of the world’s supply comes from Latin America and Australia, with some from China, but the UK Government has earmarked lithium as a metal of strategic importance to the country. If Cornish Lithium is successful in extracting lithium from the hot spring brines, it would make the county the UK and Europe’s only major source of the valuable metal.