Lithium revives Cornwall mining region
G7 locale emblematic of the history and future of UK mining Metal Tech News – June 9, 2021
Last updated 6/8/2021 at 2:53pm
Focused on environmentally sound production of lithium, Cornish Lithium Ltd. is testing new technologies to extract the battery metal from geothermal waters at its United Downs facility in Cornwall, a region emblematic of the storied mining history and promising future in the United Kingdom.
Cornwall traces its mining roots back more than 4,000 years to mines that churned out Bronze Age tin and copper. Beginning late in the 19th century, however, the enduring and proud tradition of mining in this southern UK region began to fade, and in 1998 the last Cornish tin mine closed.
In recent years, heat and power generated by geothermal waters, and more recently lithium found in those waters and surrounding rocks, is offering new economic opportunities for this historic mining area.
Due in large part to its rich mining history and promising future as a supplier of metals critical to the global transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy, Cornwall has emerged as UK's center for green energy technology and metals. This revival of the millennia-long mining district is being underscored by the arrival of leaders of the world's top economic nations for the G7 summit to be held on the historic Cornish coast in the coming days.
"As world leaders gather in Cornwall for the G7 summit to take collective action towards securing a green and global economic recovery, and with the news that Nissan is considering constructing a battery gigafactory in the North East (UK), the timing could not be better for Cornish Lithium to play a significant role in establishing a crucial domestic supply chain for the EV industry," said Jeremy Wrathall, CEO and founder of Cornish Lithium.
United Downs geothermal
Gathering data from the vast Cornwall mining archives and consulting with Cornish miners that draw knowledge from their own underground careers and the generations that came before them, Cornish Lithium identified United Downs as the most prospective site to test the environmentally sound lithium extraction technologies it is developing.
The recently completed United Downs facility will test various direct lithium extraction technologies on both deep geothermal waters delivered by GeoCubed, a collaboration between Cornish Lithium and Geothermal Engineering Ltd, and shallow geothermal waters from Cornish Lithium's own research boreholes.
One of the technologies being tested utilizes a microfiber-based material developed by France-based Geolith that is designed to filter and selectively capture lithium or unwanted contaminants. A three-week test of the direct lithium extraction technology begins on June 9.
The facility will also test Nano Beads, a proprietary filtration media that was originally developed by United States-based Precision Periodic to recover rare earths out of a phosphate mining process.
Nano Beads can also recover precious metals and lithium without the need for pretreatment, heat, or pressure. Precision says 95 to 100% of the targeted elements can be recovered in a single pass. Once captured by the Nano Beads, each pure element can be released individually.
At United Downs, this process is expected to generate zero waste, and the geothermal waters can be returned to the source once the lithium ions have been extracted or filtered with additional Nano Beads that will clean the geothermal waters of other elements for the potential production of water for farming and other applications. The system is highly scalable, requires very little energy, and has a small footprint that is ideal for establishing at individual sites.
"Our lithium in geothermal waters test site at United Downs provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate what modern, low-carbon mineral extraction looks like, and the results will inform the development of the larger pilot plant that we intend to construct by the end of March next year," said Wrathall.
Future of Cornwall mining
In the meantime, Cornish Lithium is looking to continue Cornwall's millennia-long mining heritage into the Digital Age by establishing a hard rock lithium resource within a few miles of the Bronze Age tin and copper mines this region is known for.
The company recently completed its second drill program at Trelavour, which will provide the information to calculate a maiden resource estimate for the near-surface lithium granite deposit at this project in the St. Austell region of Cornwall.
In addition, testing is being carried out to optimize the extraction of lithium from mica minerals in the granite.
A demonstration mineral concentrator plant built by Grinding Solutions Ltd, a Cornish mineral processing consultancy and laboratory, is being used to process roughly 30 metric tons of Trelavour granite to produce a lithium-enriched mica mineral concentrate.
Cornish Lithium intends to use the results from this test to refine the design of a commercial plant for Trelavour.
The company expects to produce battery-grade lithium chemicals from the mica concentrate with an environmentally responsible extraction technology it licensed from Australia-based Lepidico Ltd. last December.
The results of this work will inform the project's scoping study, which is being partly funded through a grant awarded in April by the Automotive Transformation Fund, a UK initiative to build the world's most comprehensive and compelling electric vehicle supply chain.
G7 gathers on Cornish coast
Due in large part to the lithium projects being developed there, the UK sees Cornwall as the center of its green technology sector. This is one of the reasons it selected this picturesque and mineral-rich seaside location to host the 2021 G7 summit.
Leaders from the "Group of Seven" nations – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, and the United States – and other invited countries will soon be arriving to meet at Carbis Bay Hotel on the Cornish coast for the economic summit to be held June 11-13.
"This will not only boost the regional and national economy as the UK transitions to net zero-carbon, it will also position Cornwall at the heart of the green industrial revolution, continuing a proud 4,000-year history of mineral extraction and innovation," Wrathall said of the meeting to be held within about 30 miles of its United Downs and Trelavour lithium projects.
A video briefing prepared for attendees of the G7 summit details the mineral, geothermal, renewable energy, and technological resources Cornwall has to offer the UK and world. This briefing includes a presentation by Cornish Lithium Senior Geologist Lucy Crane on the lithium and other critical minerals Cornwall has to offer and why these raw materials are necessary for a world transitioning to lower carbon forms of energy and transportation.
"The energy transition, to allow us to combat climate change and move away from our reliance on fossil fuels, is going to be really mineral intensive," Crane said. "The World Bank estimates that over the last 5,000 years, humanity has mined about 550 million tons of copper. They reckon that we need that same amount of copper over the next 25 years purely for use in low-carbon technologies such as wind turbines, electric vehicles, and solar panels."
Cornwall, which helped supply the first 550 million tons, still has the potential to contribute to this massive coming need of the vital electrical conductor, along with the lithium for batteries, the tin required across all technological sectors, and the extremely durable tungsten used in everything from cutting tools to rockets.
Leaders of the world's seven wealthiest democracies and other global dignitaries will get a first-hand glimpse of Cornwall's rich mining history and green energy future as they gather on the Cornish coast to tackle the world's biggest problems – a fitting setting for addressing one of the challenges high on the agenda, climate change.
"By embracing new technologies to allow us to explore for things responsibly, to extract things efficiently and in a low-carbon manner, there really is a huge opportunity for the UK to provide some of the critical raw materials that are going to be so crucial to our energy transition and our energy future here in the UK," said Crane.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since her 2020 TEDx talk, "Mining our way to a low-carbon future," Crane has emerged as an international voice for mining's role in the global transition to renewable energy and e-mobility. To read more about Crane and to view her talk, visit Lithium geologist makes case for mining in the February 5, 2020 edition of Metal Tech News.