It has all the elements of the best mystery stories: old documents hidden away in obscure corners of offices, ancient books on dusty library shelves containing long-forgotten but vital information, clues scattered here and there in passing references to other things, shadowy figures protecting long-standing rights held for generations and at the end of it all the possibility of a discovering a new and very rich treasure in the long-abandoned underground mines of Cornwall.
It takes a certain sort of creative mind to put all these pieces of the puzzle together and come up with an idea that could transform England’s mining and energy industry at a stroke.
How is this possible?
“This all started five years ago when a friend of mine who was running South Crofty said ‘we’ve got everything here, tin copper, zinc and lots of other metals.”
These are the opening words of Jeremy Wrathall, as he starts to tell the story of Cornish Lithium, a company that he conceived himself on the germ of an idea and which he now aims to build into a new force in English junior mining.
South Crofty, as mining industry veterans will remember well, was the last of the great Cornish tin mines to close, and that scarce a generation ago. It closed because tin prices were low, costs were high and because the country just really wasn’t set up for mining any more.
By the time Wrathall’s friend had taken charge, production at South Crofty was just a distant memory, but a mining boom had since come and gone, and geologists with one eye on the main chance had always kept it in view.
To the north, in Wales, another old operation continues to attract interest and funding, on the island of Anglesey. Up in Yorkshire, Sirius Minerals (LON:SXX) continues to make waves in the investment world, while even further north, in Scotland, a new mine has just started production. Closer to Cornwall, meanwhile, Wolf Minerals has just started tungsten production across the border at Hemerdon in Devon.
In fact, the closure of South Crofty probably marked the unofficial nadir of British mining in general. So Wrathall’s plans to make the mineralisation there work for the economic good of shareholders and the local populace represent a small but significant stage in the slow renaissance of British mining.
The glory days of coal are long gone, of course, when British miners numbered in their hundreds of thousands. In spite of strong continuing appetite in developing parts of the world, coal is a commodity of the past.
Instead, the future lies with lithium. All this would have had very little to do with Cornwall had not Wrathall, a highly experience mining analyst with a quick brain and a commercial mind, managed to join a series of dots that no-one else had even seen were connected.
Hence the time in the libraries, the time poring over old documents, consulting old testimony, looking at old geological maps and reading the accounts of old miners in Cornwall. Hence, his ears pricking up when his friend talked of South Crofty containing “everything”.
Might that “everything” include lithium, the metal of the moment?
It did indeed, and possibly in serious quantity too. The lithium in question isn’t, however, contained in the ore mined by the old-timers at South Crofty or at other mines across the county. Rather, it comes as part of a perennial problem that the old-timers faced: the ingress of hot water into the mines.
Thus, Wrathall deeply ensconced in library books looking for testimony of old miners about the disruptive effects of heat and hot water on old mines. And this testimony, once found, goes back at least 150 years. Thus, Wrathall searching for geological models to explain this phenomena unearthed documents explaining exactly why the lithium is there.
But nobody had previously connected the dots as the market for lithium didn't exist, nor did the new technology to extract it..
And thus,with a bit of lateral thinking, he puttogether a working hypothesis, which if right, could end up proving that one of Europe’s largest concentrations of lithium mineralisation in fact lies beneath the surface of Cornwall, inside what are known as brines, salty water that also contains other minerals.
“We found historic lithium readings at several old mines in Cornwall: Wheal Clifford, Wheal Jane and South Crofty amongst others,” he says. “The brine appears to have stripped lithium out of the granite in Cornwall and the fact that the granite is still hot means that these brines are still circulating.”
The idea is to drill into large scale regional faults where the company believes brines containing lithium are still moving. The brine would then be pumped to surface and processed using one of a series of newly developing technologies that allows for the rapid extraction of lithium from brine.
Cornish Lithium now has the rights to all lithium discovered in ground controlled by these parties, subject to a royalty, which Wrathall estimates at adding up to a total of around 30,000 hectares. It’s hard to be precise, because there is no official, national land registry for mineral rights, which is another reason why Wrathall has had to play detective.
Whatever the exact amount of land under license, Cornish Lithium will now be able to to conduct the most extensive exploration programme ever undertaken in Cornwall.
Modern exploration techniques have come a long way since the mines in Cornwall shut down twenty years ago and Wrathall believes new techniques will enable the company to narrow down the search and enable test holes to be accurately drilled.
So the mystery is moving into a new phase now: will the brines really deliver lithium in sufficient quantities to make it economic?
“This has a lot of risk, as do many early stage exploration projects” concedes Wrathall. “Of that there’s no doubt.” But if I didn’t try and advance this project somebody else would. Lithium is the metal of the future and if we prove the concept this could result in a whole new industry for Britain.”
He’s now seeking up to £5mln in early stage funding to prove his concept.
And in the current buoyant lithium market, and allowing for Wrathall’s own long experience both in capital markets and as a mining engineer, he’s likely to get it.