‘The part of Cornwall nobody ever sees’: the hi-tech future for lithium and tin mining

In the second part of our Electric dreams series looking at the UK’s automotive battery industry, we visit an area whose industrial past is being revitalised

A foggy, overgrown quarry in a quiet part of Cornwall is a good place to contemplate Britain’s industrial past. It is here that miners used steam power, explosives and their own hands to dig out china clay for ceramics. The industry helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution and briefly made Redruth one of the richest places in the UK.

The quarry is also a pretty good place to contemplate Britain’s industrial future. Cornish Lithium, a UK startup, is one of a clutch of businesses hoping to revive British mining amid a global scramble for the battery minerals that are crucial for the transition away from fossil fuels.

The shift to electric cars is upending the automotive industry. It has also set off a scramble for the minerals that will be used in every vehicle. This article, the second in Electric Dreams, a series exploring the UK’s efforts to save its car industry by building an automotive battery industry, will examine how mining companies are hoping to provide the first stage of the supply chain: the minerals that will be crucial to every car battery.

There are already battery factories under way in the UK, with Chinese company Envision in Sunderland and under-pressure startup Britishvolt in Northumberland both starting building work. The batteries and electric cars they make will need steady supplies of high-grade minerals: cobalt, nickel, manganese, tin, but above all lithium.

Richard Williams, Cornish Metals’s chief executive
Richard Williams, Cornish Metals’s chief executive, says there’s a tension between nimbyism and the fact that ‘everybody wants a new electric car and new tech’. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

“This is the part of Cornwall that nobody ever sees,” said Neil Elliot, Cornish Lithium’s corporate development manager, at the steep-sided Trelavour quarry, a few miles from Redruth.

The company hopes the business will start producing usable lithium by 2026, eventually moving millions of tonnes of rock and digging down 120 metres. The quarry, which has just won financial support from the UK government, would create about 300 jobs and provide an alternative to seasonal tourism work.

The lithium ion battery was only invented in the 1980s, and demand for the metal was previously limited mainly to ceramics, grease and antidepressants – although a small amount was also mined at Trelavour to control carbon dioxide levels in the UK’s nuclear submarines. The huge expansion of the battery industry has changed that.

Many battery materials are mined in big, sparsely populated commodity exporters with resources such as Australia’s spodumene lithium rocks, Chile’s brine and Russia’s nickel mountain. China is also keen to tap its lithium deposits.

The challenges vary from mineral to mineral. Campaigners have reported persistent environmental concerns around nickel mining in Indonesia and Russia. The largest cobalt deposits are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where artisanal and small-scale mining can be open to abuses such as child labour.

A UK battery industry will probably always be dependent on supplies from abroad. However, miners in the UK are hopeful that soaring demand for electric cars, each with a few kilograms of battery metals, will sustain prices at a profitable level for their smaller, and therefore less cost-effective, mines.

A few miles away from Trelavour, the South Crofty headframe looms over the village of Pool. Here Cornish Metals is hoping to reopen the tin mine, which was abandoned in 1998. The tin will be used in solder in electronics ranging from electric cars to solar panels. However, the mine is still four years away from production.

A worker inside South Croft tin mine.
South Croft tin mine was abandoned in 1998. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Richard Williams, Cornish Metals’ chief executive, said the boom in electric cars and personal devices during the pandemic had been a gamechanger for metal companies. It meant projects in the UK could be financially viable, as long as local communities accept new mines.

“People have to bridge the gap between nimbyism and the fact that everybody wants a new electric car and new tech,” Williams said, adding that the mine could create another 300 jobs.

Cornish Lithium is pursuing tandem efforts in its search for profits: reopening a disused china clay quarry to mine overlooked lithium, and extracting lithium from geothermal brine – heated by naturally occurring radioactivity in granite.

At the geothermal site, Richard Thompson, the project manager for Cornish Lithium, points to “our underwhelming borehole”. Looks can be deceiving: the plate-sized hole stretches down more than 800 metres. The borehole is drilled deep into the granite to draw out ancient underground reservoirs of brine containing dissolved lithium salts. The locations were chosen in part thanks to incredibly detailed Victorian maps of previous mines which noted the waters were “rich in lithia”.

Cornish Lithium is experimenting with different chemical methods of extracting the lithium once the water is drawn to the surface – and it is also looking at how to sell the geothermal heat to nearby industry and even housing projects.

Copper staining at South Croft tin mine
Copper staining at South Croft tin mine. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

There is little prospect for manufacturers in the UK and Europe of not being reliant on major overseas suppliers, given the imperative to churn out battery vehicles to replace polluting internal combustion engines. UK and European mining projects will probably be marginal players, said Caspar Rawles, the chief data officer at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a data company.

“The UK and Europe as a continent have relatively limited scope to be self-sufficient on a regional basis,” he said. Resources that are available will typically be higher-cost, and UK and EU policymakers have so far not shown much interest in encouraging battery materials processing.

“Chinese domination across the supply chain is a major concern,” said Rawles.

Either way, Benchmark and some other analysts including those at investment bank Evercore ISI believe a lithium shortfall is likely to remain over the next few years – although Goldman Sachs ruffled feathers earlier this year with a prediction that the market could become oversupplied, pushing prices down.

“There is a misconception that there’s loads of lithium out there, so it’s not going to be a problem,” said Cornish Lithium’s Elliot. “Yes, there’s loads of lithium out there, but it’s getting it into a usable form that’s the problem.”

Lithium carbonate spot prices have soared from less than 100,000 Chinese yuan (£12,200) a tonne as recently as August 2021 to more than 500,000 yuan by October, according to Refinitiv.

Redruth and nearby Camborne, home to the School of Mines, contain some of the most deprived wards in Britain. A statue of a miner looming over Redruth’s quiet high street symbolises what has been lost since its mining heyday – and perhaps what could be gained, even if the UK remains a marginal player.

There has been some local opposition to mining projects in Cornwall, but Kim Conchie, the chief executive of the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, suggested the area’s long history of mining meant residents may be more open to new projects, even if they do not deliver thousands of jobs as in the past.

“Places like Redruth have lost their mojo since the mines closed down,” Conchie said. “We’re pretty optimistic that this could be the cusp of another golden era for Cornwall.”

Contributor

Jasper Jolly

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lithium find in Cornwall spurs hopes of regeneration
Discovery of high-grade metal used for electric car batteries ‘could be enough to meet total future UK demand’

Steven Morris

17, Sep, 2020 @9:41 AM

Article image
Britishvolt scraps plan for second factory in Canada
Troubled startup battery maker formally abandons long-shot plan to build 60GW plant in Quebec

Jasper Jolly

27, Nov, 2022 @4:39 PM

Article image
Battery startup Britishvolt enters administration as rescue talks fail
Staff told majority of firm’s 300 employees would be immediately made redundant on Tuesday morning

Alex Lawson and Jasper Jolly

17, Jan, 2023 @1:28 PM

Article image
‘UK could miss out’: is government doing enough for car battery industry?
In part three of our series on the UK’s battery ambitions, we look at its attempts to encourage ‘gigafactories’

Jasper Jolly

04, Nov, 2022 @4:37 PM

Article image
Oxford Nanopore float offers London a proper tech future
Planned IPO of life science group will test LSE’s appetite for funding high-growth tech

Nils Pratley

30, Mar, 2021 @6:30 PM

Article image
Shock therapy: turmoil engulfs Britishvolt’s £3.8bn battery factory
Future of company hailed by Boris Johnson as key to green industrial revolution hangs in the balance, as the first in our Electric dreams series on Britain’s fledgling battery industry reveals

Jasper Jolly

29, Sep, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Skyscanner's Chinese takeover supported by Tech City UK chair
Sale deal of £1.4bn doesn’t undermine independence of British IT companies, says government’s digital expert

Sean Farrell

25, Nov, 2016 @7:36 PM

Article image
Why Boris Johnson's tech vision lacks the support of investors
The PM’s ambition seems to be central to trade talks with the EU – but if there is a strategy behind it, he’s not letting on

Nils Pratley

10, Sep, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Improbable sums? Cambridge graduates' tech firm raises $500m
British virtual simulation startup launched just five years ago is valued at more than $1bn after funding from Japan’s Softbank

Mark Sweney

12, May, 2017 @1:59 PM

Article image
Mining firm hopes to extract lithium from Cornwall's hot springs
Plan by Cornish Lithium to explore metal deposits in saline waters raises hopes of mining revival in English county

Steven Morris

19, Jan, 2017 @11:00 AM