It’s been a slow-burner till now, but Cornwall’s mining renaissance is beginning to build some real momentum. It’s no accident that the schedules for the executives at Cornish Lithium and Cornish Metals (LON:CUSN) have never been busier. The G7 are in town, and both these mining companies are at the forefront of providing the commodities that will go towards greening the world.
Cornish Metals has copper at United Downs and tin at South Crofty, while Cornish Lithium has lithium - potentially all over Cornwall.
The initial proof of that comes just above the rubbly ground in an industrial site just outside of Falmouth. A technician wearing a visor, to protect himself not from Covid, but from heat, gently turns the tap, and a clear liquid flows quietly out and into a plastic bottle.
But it’s not water, or not exactly.
In fact this is brine, and what it contains represents the potential transformation not only of the Cornish economy, but of the British economy as a whole.
Because it’s here, on this industrial estate, that the practical end of one British company’s efforts to create a home-grown lithium production industry are starting to bear fruit.
Cornish Lithium was the brain-child of mining industry veteran Jeremy Wrathall, who unearthed a few years ago, centuries-old reports of hot liquids appearing inside some of Cornwall’s ancient tin and copper mines.
It took a man with trained mining eye and a keen awareness of the latest dynamics in the commodities markets to put two and two together. Back in the day, the hot brines that gushed into Cornwall’s underground mines were a very unwelcome distraction.
Now though, they could be the key to unlocking a multi-million or billion dollar nascent industry. Lithium is in high demand for use in electric vehicles and the next generation of energy storage batteries, and Britain for the past couple of decades has been a major manufacturing hub for the European car market.
But Brexit has complicated matters in that regard, with new treaties stipulatng that a certain amount of raw material for manufactured goods must be sourced locally. Where will Britain get the raw materials that will allow its car manufacturing to continue to prosper?
The small tap in the industrial estate offers one possible answer.
How much lithium can be extracted from the brines in Cornwall is an open question. On the evidence so far, it’s not likely to be small though, and indeed it’s quite possible that there could be decades worth of supply available.
Cornish Lithium has gathered together a sizeable land package, and is confident that when the appropriate tests are complete and the time comes to start commercial extraction, it will be able to produce the lion’s share of the lithium in brines that Cornwall ends up producing. In the background there are also hard rock mines, but for now the brines are the focus because the footprint is so small and the upside is so great.
Current work is focusing on how best to extract the lithium from the brines. On one side of the small tap sits a small container full of high-tech machinery owned by a French firm. Across the yard, beyond the cuboid containers that are used for the shipment of bulk samples, in a shed sits another potential method of processing that uses special beads. This is the property of a Canadian company brought in by Cornish Lithium, and has the virtue of being a closed-loop in terms of processing – almost all the waste generated gets reused.
A decision on processing is imminent, and it’s expected that a pilot plant will be ready by the end of March next year.
In the meantime, Cornish Lithium has plenty to do. First off, it’s hosting several high profile visits this week, as the arrival of the G7 up the road has thrown the spotlight firmly on local opportunities in regards to renewables. After that, the emphasis will shift to getting pilot-scale production underway, and to a proposed listing on the Aim market of the London stock exchange.
There’s also the question of Cornwall’s mineral rights in general. Through the work initiated by Jeremy Wrathall which is now being continued by his capable staff, the company has assembled the largest singled database of mining rights and ownership in the West Country. This puts Cornish Lithium in a position of some strength as a regional player.
Already it’s played a key role in the latest copper discovery of Cornish Metals. Across the road from the industrial estate with the tap that gushes lithium brines, across a field, the thin cylinders and supports of a drill rig rise up into the air, silhouetted over the hedge rows. Here, Cornish Metals is looking to follow up on that copper intercept in an area that used to be known as “the richest square mile on earth” because of its huge mineralized endowment.
Will any part of Cornwall ever be worthy of such a title again? It’s ambitious idea, but several mining companies are having a go at making it happen, and Cornish Lithium is in the vanguard.