“It’s been a huge voyage of discovery,” says Jeremy Wrathall.
“An absolutely amazing journey.”
In the past year the company he created, Cornish Lithium, has been transforming rapidly from a concept conjured up from the pages of old documents hidden in half-forgotten library vaults into a well-funded exploration vehicle with 10 geologists and some serious-minded partners providing additional funding and know-how.
New consortium very blue-chip
The latest development for Cornish Lithium involves the company’s participation in a consortium brought together and funded by the Faraday Battery Challenge fund, a UK government scheme aimed at furthering the UK’s electric vehicle battery capabilities.
In the world of geological know-how in the UK the partners in this consortium don’t get much more blue chip than the Natural History Museum, arguably the institution which kick-started the entire scientific field of geology, or Wardell Armstrong, the leading firm of geological consultants, which does business around the world and knows mining and mineralogy like few others.
But these two institutions, the one commercial, the other academic, are now partnered with Cornish Lithium in what can only be seen as a ringing endorsement of the potential that Cornish Lithium’s projects offer.
The government grant to the consortium amounts to just under £500,000, to be split, between the three parties according to their responsibilities. The project will focus on the possibility of securing a domestic supply of lithium for the UK.
Wardell Armstrong will take the lead in the partnership, on account of the significant expertise and experience it can bring to bear, particularly in the shape of Dr Chris Broadbent, in his capacity as co-ordinator for the FAME project, an internationally-backed consortium of companies and academic institutions that has been researching the potential of significant European orebodies, including lithium deposits.
One of FAME’s backers is the Natural History Museum, so here we have two partners who’ve already cooperated successfully coming round a second time for a new venture.
Cornish Lithium takes the lead in UK lithium exploration
What’s different in this case is the addition of Cornish Lithium into the mix. That gives the partnership a very specific flavour. Although the grant money won’t go exclusively towards researching the potential of Cornish Lithium’s more than 300 square kilometres of rights in Cornwall, nonetheless, this seems likely to be front and centre.
Cornish Lithium itself raised a further £1mln in December 2018, so work is proceeding apace in any case, and Wrathall is confident that the company’s current backers will return in any future fundraising, so this is not at all a story about a privately-listed company dependent on grant funding in order to survive. The Faraday Challenge funding is however likely to accelerate work that Cornish Lithium had planned to do.
Rather, with its work on the ground in Cornwall, Cornish Lithium is beginning to make enough intellectual waves on the UK mining scene to allow it to rub shoulders with the likes of Wardell and the Natural History Museum on something like an equal footing.
Cornish mining conference coming up
The company is putting together a Cornwall-focused mining conference in June, and expects it to be attended by some serious and heavy-hitting investors, as well as some significant players in the mining sector itself, like Strategic Metals PLC (LON:SMI) and Strongbow.
It all speaks of an enterprise getting into its stride. The excitement in Wrathall’s voice as he describes his experiences in uncovering the huge lithium potential of Cornwall is palpable. Here it seems he is coming into his element as an entrepreneurial chief executive, after years learning the ropes of international mining finance in dry offices in the City.
Much will depend on the geology, of course. But we’ll be getting an update on that fairly soon. Vital information is expected to come from the United Downs geothermal project in Cornwall which recently reached the incredible depth of 5.2 kilometres, becoming the deepest hole ever drilled on shore in the UK.
This project is located only 500 metres from the original discovery of lithium in brine that was recorded by Professor Miller of Kings College in 1864 and recorded in some of the dusty documents that Wrathall uncovered during his search for lithium in Cornwall.
For Cornish Lithium it’s not just brine, either. That was the initial focus, but the company is now looking at the potential for hard rock mining too, especially after it was contacted by a retired member of the British Geological Survey and informed that unbeknownst to anyone there had actually been a lithium mine on Cornish Lithium’s ground during the war.
“We have located the old mine,” says Wrathall, “and it’s in an area where we have rights to the hard rock as well as the brine.”
Mining already happening in the area
What’s more, he says, there is already a major open-pit mining industry operating in Cornwall for china clay, which is a good precedent for the possibility of a lithium mining industry in the same region.
It’s all highly encouraging, but it’s the government endorsement that will really give the project a boost this year.
“The Department for International Trade has announced Cornish mining as a high priority opportunity for the UK,” explains Wrathall.
“This has been a major boost for our company and for other companies, such as Strongbow Exploration and Strategic Minerals who are operating in Cornwall. This, together with strong support form the Cornwall Council make mining in Cornwall a very real possibility.”
The government is perhaps in a bit more of a hurry than it otherwise might be, as the Brexit situation has brought the need for new economic initiatives to the fore. But as far as Cornish Lithium is concerned that’s all to the good.
The creation of the partnerships with Wardells and the Natural History Museum represents, says Wrathall, “government recognition that there could be a domestic source of lithium in the UK from brine and hard rock.”
And that’s exactly what Wrathall himself has been saying ever since the days he was inhabiting those old libraries fishing out long-forgotten geological reports on lithium in Cornwall.
His vision is now one step closer to becoming a reality, although there’s still a long journey ahead.