Thursday, 1 October 2020

September: the inevitable arrival of the second wave

It is just over 6 months ago that a pandemic was declared, and countries around the world had different ways of dealing with the virus. Italy, then the worst affected European country, was the first to go into complete lock-down. 

The UK government’s controversial strategy at that time was to minimise the impact of Covid-19 by allowing the virus to pass through much of the population, to produce herd immunity, but at a much delayed speed so that those who suffered the most acute symptoms would be able to receive the medical support needed, and such that the health service would not be overwhelmed and crushed by the sheer number of cases at any one time. The initial advice was to avoid public places, such as pubs and restaurants, but days afterwards the decision was made to go into lockdown.

Sweden was the only European country not to impose tough lockdown procedures and was vilified in many quarters for doing this. But now, as cases surge again across Europe, leading to new restrictions such as the mandatory wearing of masks in many public areas, the infection rate in Sweden is the one of the lowest in Europe, maybe vindicating its decision to aim for herd immunity.

On the 2nd day of the month children in UK returned to school for the first time in 6 months, a week later students returned to Universities, and the exodus of tourists from Cornwall slowly began. Falmouth also said farewell to the luxury residential cruise ship The World, which had been a feature of the harbour for almost 4 months. Due to the pandemic the vessel was taken out of service on March 17, and all residents, guests and non-essential crew were disembarked by March 20.

The World in Falmouth Harbour
Falmouth says farewell to The World

Hospital cases in UK have been low, as the majority of those testing positive are young people with only minor symptoms, but who do, of course, have the potential to pass the virus on to the more vulnerable. Not unexpectedly due to earlier relaxation of restrictions and people interacting with each other again the infection rate increased rapidly around the middle of the month and tighter restrictions introduced for group meetings meant that the Cornish Mining Sundowner had to be cancelled, and for the foreseeable future, and inevitable outbreaks at Universities led to the quarantine of many students in Halls of Residence.

The "rule of six", the limit on group gatherings of a maximum of six came with little warning, and was highly contentious, as it had not been debated in Parliament, and only a little earlier Boris Johnson had been urging people to get back to work rather than work from home. In further restrictions imposed last week Boris urged people to work from home rather than get back to work! A 10 pm curfew on pubs and restaurants was also imposed with little thought to the consequences, such as people gathering in homes and supermarkets once bars closed. Unfortunately the public are becoming increasingly confused and sceptical by repeated stop-start initiatives and U-turns leading to inevitable ridicule and disobedience.

Peter Brookes, The Times, September 23rd

The future is still very uncertain and although I have sat in a few webinars, I certainly miss the face to face international meetings, the last being over 7 months ago. The photo below was taken on the morning of Wednesday 26th February at the SME Annual Meeting in Phoenix. 

At the Mining Media booth with Carly Leonida and Dan Fitts

Little did I know at the time that it would be the last conference photo for a considerably long time.  I left Phoenix on that day looking forward to the next major event, Comminution '20, but two weeks later we had to postpone this until 2021 due to the rapid development of the pandemic. Six months later the SME Annual Meeting became the latest Coronavirus casualty, the planned event next March now being a virtual event. 

And finally a little light relief from the pandemic. After 7 months confined to Cornwall, Barbara and I escaped last weekend for a few days across the border in East Devon.

We stayed in Exmouth, the beginning of the 96 mile length of coastline known as the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site which would perhaps have been more appropriately named the Mesozoic Coast, as the exposed cliffs are the sediments of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. 

In the Triassic, this area was an arid iron-rich Pangean desert, which was later covered by shallow Jurassic and Cretaceous seas. The coast takes its name from the beautiful Jurassic limestones, particularly around the Lyme Regis and Charmouth area in Dorset, a world famous haven for fossil hunters.

What makes this coastline so fascinating is that a slight tilting east during the Mesozoic, and erosion during the Mesozoic and Quaternary eras, has left continuous outcrops representing 185 million years of the earth's history from the Triassic to the Cretaceous.

We walked the first 5 miles of this stretch, from Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton, where the cliffs are composed of New Red Sandstones, the sediments from the tropical desert of around 250 million years ago.

The oldest rocks on the Jurassic Coast, the red sandstone cliffs at Orcombe Point, Exmouth
Sandy Bay, half way between Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton
The Triassic pebble beach at Budleigh Salterton
Back into Cornwall, for goodness knows how long!


Monday, 28 September 2020

Cornwall leads the way- the UK's hive of mining activity

I was pleased to see so many comments on the posting of 13th September regarding the likely scrapping, after 130 years,  of the undergraduate course in mining engineering at Camborne School of Mines. The University of Exeter obviously have their reasons for doing this, but one of the correspondents to the posting said that "training mining and mineral processing engineers is not a popular pursuit simply because the actual work is no longer in Britain". This unfortunately is a misconception that is widely held- since the demise of coal mining, there is no longer any mining in UK. This is not true, however, there is a dynamic mining industry in Britain, and much of it, ironically, is in Cornwall. 

As well as an established china clay mining industry, there is a great deal of mining activity in Cornwall at present, with the development of lithium extraction, and new deposits of tin and copper being developed, as well as geothermal energy. There are also numerous mining and mineral processing service companies, which are fully listed on the Cornwall Mining Alliance website. Many Camborne School of Mines graduates are gainfully employed in these areas.

Geothermal Engineering Ltd continues to push forward with the United Downs deep geothermal power project and has recently completed the first phase of testing on the wells.  The production well is 5.275km deep and the temperature is now confirmed at 188 degrees Celsius. Further well testing will be undertaken in October and the project aims to produce power in late 2021.

The latest results from Cornish Lithium are also very exciting. Lithium levels in the geothermal brines were always expected to be high but the water chemistry does suggest that low carbon lithium extraction will also be possible at the geothermal site.  The combination of deep geothermal power, heat and lithium could be a big part of the future in Cornwall (MEI Blog September 18th).

And geothermal brines are not the only source of lithium in the county. British Lithium Ltd is the first company in the UK to explore for hard rock lithium and the only one so far to have established a resource, in the St Austell area, well known for its china clay deposits. It now aims to build a quarry and refinery in Cornwall that will produce 20,000 tonnes per year of lithium carbonate, and has been awarded £500,000 of government funding to progress research and development of lithium extraction from granitic lithium micas.

Cornwall is synonymous with copper and tin mining, and its legacy can be seen all over the county, with its iconic abandoned engine houses, a haven for artists and photographers.

The last tin mine to close was South Crofty in Camborne in 1998. The mine is now being redeveloped and an unexpectedly high-grade intersection of 2.19% tin has been reported more than 100 metres below any historic mining. Cornish Metals Inc. said the results reflected the mine’s potential and the possible discovery of “economic structures” in areas of the mine not previously considered. The company contrasted the findings with the Renison Bell underground tin mine in Tasmania which mined an average grade of 1.32% tin in 2019. Chief executive of Cornish Metals, Richard Williams, said: “The intermediate lode structure was predicted by our geological team to be in this area but such a high-grade intersection so far beneath the old mine workings was not anticipated. It does reinforce the exploration potential at South Crofty and our ability to find economic structures within areas of the mine that have been previously overlooked".

South Crofty is an ancient mine which produced copper and then tin for over 400 years. In east Cornwall, near the Devon border, is another ancient mine which is currently under development by the Redmoor Tin-Tungsten-Copper Project. The original Redmoor Mine is one of a group of mines that were opened in the 18th century and continued operating until 1892 when they were forced to close due to low tin prices. Sections of the Redmoor Mine were re-opened between 1907 and 1914 and again in 1934. Redmoor now ranks as one of the leading undeveloped tin-tungsten mining projects in the world, having recently revealed a new mineral resource estimate. It is estimated that Redmoor contains some 137,000 tonnes of inferred tin resources, up from 45,000 tonnes. This provides the company and its joint venture partner, New Age Exploration, confidence to progress towards the goal of restarting mining at Redmoor.

And apart from all this, the UK's four major minerals industry conferences next year, Physical Separation '21, IntegratedMinPro '21, Biomining '21 and Sustainable Minerals '21 will be held in Falmouth next June, hosted by Cornwall-based MEI.

Things are happening in Cornwall!  All the more reason to wonder at the University of Exeter's decision to 'pause' recruitment to the undergraduate mining engineering degree at Camborne.


Thursday, 24 September 2020

Eriez Flotation: the latest sponsor of Flotation '21

We are pleased to welcome back Eriez Flotation as a sponsor of next year's Flotation '21 in Cape Town. The company was a sponsor of last year's Flotation '19, also in Cape Town.

Eriez Flotation at Flotation '19

Eriez Flotation combines the minerals processing expertise of Eriez and its subsidiary, Canadian Process Technologies (CPT) and provides advanced engineering, metallurgical testing and innovative flotation technology for the mining and minerals processing industries. 

The Eriez Flotation product line encompasses flotation cells, gas spargers, mini-pilot plants, slurry distributors and flotation test equipment. The company has designed, supplied and commissioned more than 900 column flotation systems worldwide for cleaning, roughing and scavenging applications in metallic and non-metallic processing operations.  It is also well known for its StackCell® - a small stackable mechanical cell offering reduced mixing in the cell and shorter residence times, and HydroFloat®, which significantly increases recovery of coarse particles (up to 6 mm) by forming a hindered “teeter” bed of fluidized solids into which small air bubbles are introduced.

Thanks for your support, Eriez Flotation, and to all the other companies who are sponsoring next year's event.

Updates can be found at #Flotation21.

Monday, 21 September 2020

New Book: Miner with a Heart of Gold

When asked by his son to write a foreword for this book, about the life of Frank White, I felt honoured but also a little nervous about it. It is never easy to write about someone you have never personally met, even though I knew who he was, and Frank White died in 1971, just as I was embarking on my long career in the minerals industry. 

However, I am very glad that I took the plunge, as this loving portrayal by his biographer, his son Franklin White, paints a picture of a man who led a relatively brief, but intensely full life, not only as a mining and metallurgical engineer but also as an adventurer and seeker of knowledge for the common good. The book is now available in print and electronic form.

Frank White's career began in Western Australia, where he improved a process in gold refining and earned his underground mine manager certification. He was then recruited by the British Colonial Service to establish what became Fiji’s Department of Mines, during which time he carried out the first geological survey of Viti Levu, the main island of the Fiji archipelago. During the Second World War, he served with the Fiji Military Forces as a platoon commander with duties as a demolition specialist.

Following the close of the Pacific War in 1945, he was posted to the British post-war Military Administration in Malaya as a civilian charged with guiding the rehabilitation of the tin-mining industry, which responded with dramatically restored output. In late 1949, while taking leave in the UK and Australia, he took on what I believe would become his greatest legacy. Early in 1950, he was recruited by the University of Queensland (UQ) to establish its department of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering.

He did so brilliantly. His early action to reactivate an abandoned silver mine on the outskirts of Brisbane gave rise to a unique teaching and research resource. The University of Queensland Experimental Mine (UQEM) was a great success, not only in providing a reality-based setting for mineral science and engineering disciplines but also in raising the profile of UQ as a leader in the field. In 1970, the department’s Julius Kruttschnitt Minerals Research Centre, known worldwide as the JKMRC, was launched at the UQEM site. Frank White’s contributions were memorialised; in 1992, a building was named in his honour, and a minecart with memorial plaque was mounted on a rock cairn at UQEM.

Frank White in 1970

In 1965, fifteen years after founding UQ’s department, Frank was invited by Canada’s renowned McGill University in Montreal to rebuild North America’s oldest school of mines, known then as the Department of Mining Engineering and Applied Geophysics. This was yet another task in which he achieved success, with strong support; McGill’s Mining and Materials Engineering Department is now, like UQ, ranked highly internationally. 

Sadly, Frank White died a few years later, at the relatively young age of sixty-two. It is clear that, had he lived longer, he would have achieved even more. Miner with a Heart of Gold is the story of a man probably born out of his time—a visionary in his field. Frank White was passionate about mining and also its sustainability and impact on the environment, which were not considered mainstream issues in the mid-twentieth century. If he were alive today, he would have a mission to educate young people on the crucial role of mining to society. Because mining is one of the world’s greatest consumers of energy and emitters of carbon dioxide, and yet will be essential in supplying the raw materials to construct renewable technologies, he would advocate that how this is done will be critical in the fight against climate change.

This is a book on a remarkable life, which would be of interest to anyone, but should be considered essential reading for young people thinking of entering the world’s minerals industry.


Friday, 18 September 2020

Cornish Lithium finds “globally significant” lithium grades in geothermal waters and prepares for work on pilot plant

The Cornish mining district is a world-class mineral province, with estimated historic production of around £45 billion from tin and £11 billion from copper at current prices. The well-known granite outcrops (from Dartmoor in the east to the Isles of Scilly in the west) are connected deep below the surface and form one of the top five lithium-enriched granite areas worldwide, according to the United States Geological Survey. As geothermal fluids circulate in the earth’s crust, lithium is leached out of the granite into solution. Lithium in brine was first identified in ‘hot springs’ in 1864 when such fluids were discovered underground in one of Cornwall’s historic tin mines and analysed for its lithium content.

There was great news yesterday from Cornish Lithium Ltd, an innovative mineral exploration company exploring for lithium and other battery metals in the South West of the UK. Results of preliminary sampling of lithium in deep geothermal waters at the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project near Redruth (MEI Blog 1st November 2018) 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. Geothermal waters which contain lithium are very different from other occurrences of lithium in brine given that 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.

Jeremy Wrathall, CEO & Founder of Cornish Lithium and a graduate of Camborne School of Mines, said: “This is an exciting step towards the realisation of low-carbon lithium extraction from geothermal waters in Cornwall, and complements Cornish Lithium’s work to date on exploring for lithium contained within shallower geothermal waters in the County. The pilot lithium extraction plant, part funded by the UK Government, that we will develop with Geothermal Engineering Ltd. at the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project will allow us to evaluate green Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technologies which will bring us another step closer to commercial production of lithium in Cornwall. We now have increased confidence that these lithium-enriched geothermal waters can be found at depth across Cornwall and believe that there is significant potential to replicate combined lithium and geothermal extraction plants in different locations across the County where Cornish Lithium has mineral rights agreements in place.”

The initial assay results show lithium concentrations of up to 260 mg/L, which are believed to be among the highest published grades of lithium in geothermal waters globally. Importantly the Total Dissolved Solids (‘TDS’) content of these Cornish waters is exceptionally low relative to other geothermal waters worldwide, making Cornish waters globally significant. In particular magnesium, a metal that makes processing more difficult and expensive, is extremely low at a concentration of only 5mg/L.

The graph below illustrates the results in a global context and shows lithium levels relative to TDS for various types of lithium rich waters and brines, such as salar brines from the Atacama Desert, oilfield brines and other geothermal waters. Whilst salar brines are often much higher grade, they are difficult to process due to the presence of high levels of magnesium and other deleterious elements. Access to power in these remote locations also makes DLE challenging, or impossible.

These results are considered highly encouraging given current developments in lithium extraction using DLE technologies. Additional testing is planned over coming weeks. DLE technology extracts dissolved lithium compounds from the water without the need for the large evaporation ponds that are used in the arid regions of South America. It uses ionic adsorbents and/or ion exchange membranes, with the residual water being returned to depth via a borehole.

Using DLE technology Cornish Lithium aims to maximise product recovery from the geothermal waters in a small footprint, energy efficient extraction plant, which will be powered by an on-site geothermal power plant. This demonstration lithium extraction pilot plant will trial environmentally-responsible DLE technology to selectively remove lithium compounds from water extracted by the geothermal powerplant from its 5.2km deep borehole. Once the lithium has been extracted, the water will be reinjected into the rock.

An elegant process

The pilot plant at the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power Project will allow detailed evaluation of potential processing methodologies and accelerate efforts towards commercial production of lithium for automotive manufacturers seeking low carbon supply chains of battery metals. Domestic production of this critical metal is vital for the UK to deliver its zero carbon and clean growth ambitions.

Next steps include further sampling of the deep geothermal waters when GEL commences its next phase of test work at the United Downs site in October this year, with further tests expected to provide additional observations regarding the origins and context of these deeper geothermal waters. The information from additional bulk samples will then be used to inform the design and technology for the pilot DLE plant for the production of lithium hydroxide with a net zero carbon footprint.

The co-production of lithium with geothermal heat and power from the same geothermal waters is a truly exciting opportunity for Cornwall.


Thursday, 17 September 2020

Into 'Poldark Country' with Physical Separation '21 and IntegratedMinPro '21

The wonderful stretch of coastline between Levant and Botallack on the Land's End Peninsula is not only an area of outstanding natural beauty, but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as this is the St. Just Mining Area, the region of Cornwall's submarine mines (MEI Blog 20 October 2014) where 19th century miners worked the copper and tin lodes under the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and over a mile out to sea. 

The area is also popular with fans of the BBC TV series 'Poldark' (MEI Blog 29th March 2015) as this was one of the main locations for filming the fictional story of the eponymous 18th century miner.

This is my favourite stretch of the Cornish coast and I am looking forward to showing it to delegates from Physical Separation '21 and Integration, Optimisation & Design of Mineral Processing Circuits (IntegratedMinPro '21) next June.

On the afternoon of Wednesday June 9th delegates and their accompanying guests will be served a Cornish Cream Tea, and I will give a short presentation on Cornish mining and its legacy, before we are coached the 35 miles to Levant, passing by the UK's most westerly major town, Penzance, the birthplace of Sir Humphry Davy. From here we enter the most remote area of England, the Penwith, or Land's End, Peninsula, only 6 miles wide at its narrowest section between Penzance on the south coast and St. Ives on the north.

Levant, one of Cornwall's richest and most famous copper and tin mines, 'The Mine Under the Sea', operated continuously for 110 years until its closure in 1930. It is particularly well known for the collapse of its man engine in 1919, which killed 31 miners, and we will begin our tour at the miners' changing room or 'dry' where the miners entered a tunnel leading to the man engine shaft. After a quick briefing on what happened on that fateful day we will walk the couple of hundred metres down to the cliffs and to the main shafts, now owned by the National Trust

From here, those not wishing to walk over the cliffs will be coached to Botallack, where they will meet up with the rest of the group who took the 15 minute walk to the iconic Crowns Engine houses, perched precariously on the cliff face.

Passing by the extensive remains of Botallack's tin dressing floors and the arsenic calciners and labyrinths, our tour ends at the ruins of the West Wheal Owles pumping engine house.

Buddles in the Botallack dressing floor
Arsenic labyrinths
Wheal Owles

Suitably dressed up, and with a little CGI, this might be recognisable to Poldark fans as the fictional Wheal Leisure.

Filming 'Poldark' at Wheal Owles

For those who have never visited this part of Cornwall, I am sure that this will be a memorable tour and one of the highlights of the conference programmes. If you would like to present papers at the events, there is a call for abstracts, which should be submitted by the end of December.

Updates are at: