Lithium find in Cornwall spurs hopes of regeneration

Reserves of lithium described as “globally significant” have been discovered in hot springs within Cornwall’s historic tin mining area.

Initial results of testing suggest some of the world’s highest grades of lithium are to be found in geothermal waters in the far south-west of Britain, according to a mineral exploration company.

Cornish Lithium is now planning to build a pilot lithium extraction plant at its United Downs site at St Day, near Redruth.

The hope is that the find could lead to the commercial production of lithium in Cornwall and a much-needed boost to the economy in an area with pockets of high deprivation.

Lithium and other metals found in the geothermal waters are used in batteries for electric cars.

In a statement released on Thursday, the company said: “Initial results indicate some of the world’s highest grades of lithium and best overall chemical qualities encountered in published records for geothermal waters anywhere in the world.”

The company points out that the hot brine that the lithium is found in can also be used to create power. It said: “The same water can be used to generate zero-carbon electrical power and heat. As such these waters are rapidly becoming recognised as the ultimate ethical source of lithium.”

At a press conference on Thursday, Jeremy Wrathall, CEO and founder of Cornish Lithium, said the find could turn Cornwall into the UK’s hub for battery materials and create hundreds of jobs. He claimed there could be enough lithium in Cornwall to meet all the UK’s demand as it moves from fossil fuel vehicles to electric ones.

“We think it’s the beginning of a new chapter for Cornwall and the UK. It will bring jobs. It will bring prosperity to Cornwall. Hopefully Cornwall will become the battery materials hub for the UK,” he said.

Wrathall added he expected commercial production to begin in three to five years and another four potential spots on top of the current test site had been pinpointed although he said there could be many more. Each plant could lead to the creation of up to 50 jobs.

The granite in which the waters are found stretches from the Isles of Scilly 25 miles off Cornwall to Dartmoor in Devon.

Wrathall said when the test results came back, his team could not believe “the exceptionally high” grades of lithium. They contacted a second lab to double check – and the results that came back revealed even higher grades.

He said the find meant there could be potential for battery factories to be built in Cornwall, which could then supply manufacturers of electric vehicles.

Cornish Lithium is collaborating with a company called Geothermal Engineering Ltd, which is working on the production of power and heat from the hot granite rocks beneath Cornwall. Funding has been provided by the UK government’s Getting Building Fund to build a £4m pilot lithium extraction plant at United Downs.

As well as showing high concentrations of lithium, the tests reveal low concentrations of other dissolved minerals and metals that can make extraction difficult and expensive.

Wrathall, a graduate of the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, said: “These results show that Cornish deep geothermal waters, unlike others around the world, have low salinity, meaning much lower concentrations of elements such as magnesium and sodium. When these elements are present in high concentrations it can make it difficult and more expensive to separate out the lithium compounds.”

Rob Bowell, of SRK Consulting, said: “The lithium grades reported from the deep geothermal waters at United Downs are globally significant.”

Bowell, who has worked on lithium extraction projects across the world, added: “This is a fantastic opportunity for Cornwall to lead the charge on environmentally responsible extraction of this critical raw material in Europe and beyond.”

Cornwall has a long and proud mining history stretching back to the early bronze age. Reserves of copper, tin, zinc, silver and arsenic have all been exploited for many centuries.

The area around St Day and Gwennap was the richest copper-producing region in Cornwall (and the world) in the 18th and early 19th centuries, earning one portion the title of “the richest square mile on Earth”.

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As well as making fortunes for mine owners, the industry had a profound effect on the cultural life and social history of the far south-west of Britain.

It gave the world the Cornish pasty – originally a wholesome and practical lunch for miners – and was a backdrop for Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, which were turned into television hits in the 1970s and again more recently.

In the face of competition from abroad and falling demand, mining declined in Cornwall.


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