Thursday, 26 November 2020

IMPC Lifetime Achievement Award to Prof. James Finch

I was delighted to hear that my old friend Prof. Jim Finch, Emeritus Professor of McGill University, Canada is the 2020 recipient of the highest award of the International Mineral Processing Council, the Lifetime Achievement Award.

I interviewed Jim for MEI in 2015, and his long list of achievements up to the end of 2015 are documented there. Over a career of 50 years he has supervised 106 post-graduate students, of whom 50 were PhD students, and has published 375 papers in archival journals. Unlike many academic researchers his work has not just been laboratory based but has had a major impact on industrial practice through his very close association with industry throughout his career.

When I suggested to Elsevier that Jim would be the only person that I would like to have in charge of the 8th edition of Mineral Processing Technology, I never expected him to agree. But he accepted with enthusiasm, and maybe a little trepidation, and put together a strong team which has delivered what I consider to be a superb update of the text.

Book signing with Jim in Phoenix in 2016
Jim has had a long involvement with MEI, being our consultant to the flotation series of conferences, and at next year's Flotation '21 he will present a keynote lecture on the appreciation of the life and work of Prof. Graeme Jameson, of the University of Newcastle, Australia, also a holder of the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jim at Flotation '15 with fellow recipients of the SME's Antoine Gaudin Award,
Janusz Laskowski, Nag Nagaraj and Graeme Jameson
Janusz and Graeme are also Lifetime Achievement Award winners

Jim at Flotation '19 with Frank Cappuccitti and Jan Nesset

Prof. Finch has been a long-standing member of the IMPC Council (since 2000), a regular attendee at Congresses since the 1980s and was the Chair of the Organizing Committee for the XVIII IMPC in Quebec City in 2016, where he presented Prof. Graeme Jameson with his Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jim welcoming delegates to the Quebec IMPC in 2016
With Jim and Glen Dobby, his co-author for the seminal book Column Flotation
This year's award has gone to the most modest of men, who young students find very approachable and helpful, and it is a great pity that, due to the pandemic, we will have to wait until the XXXI IMPC Congress in Melbourne in August 2022 before the award will be presented in person and we will be able to share the evening with Jim and his wife Lois.
Barbara with Jim and Lois at Flotation '11 in Cape Town
@barrywills

Monday, 23 November 2020

Critical Metals and the UK's "Green Industrial Revolution"

2020 has been a momentous year in world history, and it is looking like 2030 is building up to be the start of a golden new decade, a new green era with the British landscape dotted with wind farms and electric vehicles moving silently and pollution free along our roads.

Only a few weeks ago PM Boris Johnson, no stranger to grand announcements, often preceding U-turns, promised to make Britain the "Saudi Arabia of wind", pledging that offshore wind will produce enough electricity to power every home by 2030 (posting of 12th October). This would need an offshore wind capacity of 40 gigawatts, compared with the current capacity of 10 gigawatts, and analysts have suggested that this target would require the completion of a turbine every weekday throughout the decade- a lot of steel, as well as other raw materials.

And last week another promise for 2030, a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, all part of Johnson's "green industrial revolution" to tackle climate change and create jobs in industries such as nuclear energy.

The plan has been welcomed by environmental groups, but how feasible is it, and how 'green' is it?

Way back in 2019 (it now seems a lifetime ago) I asked whether the UN Paris Agreement target of zero carbon emissions by 2050 was feasible, as this would put enormous demands on the world's finite resources of raw materials (posting of 21st July 2019). This situation has now been exacerbated by Covid, which has led to the closure of many of the world's mines. New developments have been inhibited by the low esteem in which the industry is currently being held, inhibiting capital investment, and the need to obtain social licenses to operate (Is mining facing its second existential crisis?).

Many metals and non-metals are essential in the manufacture of wind turbines and electric vehicles, and it must be remembered that huge amounts of energy are required just to mine and extract these materials. Some of the most important metals are classed as 'critical', mainly due to geopolitical reasons or shortage of supply and their production in many cases cannot be classed as 'green'.

The most important metal in wind turbines and electric vehicles is copper, which is at the heart of either producing electricity or providing motive power. A large turbine requires around 4.5 tonnes of copper, and electric vehicles up to 100 kg. Average mined copper grades fell from 1.31% in 2000 to 0.94% in 2018, raising operating costs and slowing the enthusiasm to develop new mines. This year work stoppages due to measures designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus have stalled existing capacity and have delayed investments with long-term repercussions for supply. Chile has been the worst affected followed by the U.S. and Peru.

At the heart of a wind turbine nacelle is the giant permanent magnet which is rotated by the turbine blades to generate electricity in the copper coil which surrounds it. The magnet relies on a critical rare earth element neodymium, which is alloyed with iron and boron to make very powerful permanent magnets, not only for wind turbines, but for high power, low weight electric motors for many applications.

Around 2.5 tonnes of neodymium are required in a wind turbine, but when we look up at one of these giant structures we need to ask "how green are they in reality"?

Neodymium and other rare earth elements are not actually rare at all. They occur in the earth's crust in much greater abundance than the so-called common metals such as copper, lead and zinc, but they are very thinly distributed among the crustal rocks, and only occur in economic deposits, mainly of the minerals bastnaesite and monazite, in certain parts of the earth. Unfortunately we are almost completely dependent on China for their supply, accounting for 90% of the world’s rare earths production. China also controls the refining and processing sectors and mining and extraction is highly energy intensive, using mainly fossil fuels, and is by no means environmentally friendly (posting of 11th February 2013).

Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia, is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of rare earth minerals and the by-product of extraction produces dangerous gases and radioactive wastewater, which are fed, according to BBC corespondent Tim Maughan, into a dystopian lake.

Toxic sludge pours into the lake, with the city of Baotou in the background
Image courtesy of Liam Young/Unknown Fields
Maughan reports "After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself, it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use everyday in the same way. As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we'll want to update them yearly. Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon".

The West is more dependent than ever on China for the importation of critical minerals and rare earth elements, and China has repeatedly threatened to stop exporting these minerals, so 'home-grown' supplies are going to be essential in future.

A promising development is Pensana Rare Earths Plc's Longonjo Project in Angola, now one of the world’s largest known rare earth resources.The company has initiated a study into the establishment of an integrated rare earth processing facility in the UK with a view to creating the world’s first sustainable magnet metal supply chain. The Longonjo project could, together with the UK processing facility, produce enough rare earth oxide to supply the wind turbines at Dogger Bank in UK, projected to be the world’s biggest wind farm, for the next 20 years. The project is being developed to international standards and has established infrastructure, including the capacity to be entirely powered by hydro-electricity, making Longonjo one of the world’s most sustainable rare earth producers.

Just as copper is at the heart of turbines and motors, so lithium is at the heart of the batteries which supply electricity to the motors.

Australia is the largest producer of lithium, mined from hard rock ores, but this is coming under increased scrutiny as the concentrates are processed in China using fossil fuels. Most of the remaining lithium supply is currently extracted from brines in Chile and Argentina, which involves evaporating the brine in vast evaporation ponds, with potential threats to the water supply. Chile’s Salar de Atacama is the world’s largest and purest active source of lithium, but uncertainty over the sustainability of mining activity has long cast a pall over the sensitive salt flat, home to one-quarter of the world’s current output of lithium, but also indigenous communities, protected areas, and endangered flamingos. The area is of huge importance in satisfying soaring global demand for the white metal, so again home grown supplies are vital if the green revolution is to take place at speed.

Brine pools and processing areas on the Atacama salt flat. Image courtesy of SQM
The UK has no lithium production at present but down here in Cornwall Cornish Lithium Ltd has found “globally significant” lithium grades in geothermal waters and is preparing to extract lithium in a zero-carbon operation (posting of 18th September). 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, as Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology will be used to extract 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. Lithium will be extracted from the water from the geothermal power plant's 5.2km deep borehole and the water will then be reinjected into the rock.

Geothermal brines are not the only source of lithium in Cornwall. 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, from granitic lithium micas.

And finally, on the subject of lithium-ion batteries, their future success may depend on ditching a key ingredient, the heavy metal cobalt, which is used to increase the lifespan of the battery and produce a high energy density. Recent analyses show that there may be cobalt shortages if we don’t start refining and recycling it more efficiently or in greater quantities. Cobalt is often produced as a by-product of copper or nickel mining, but it is expensive and around 60%  of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where responsible companies such as Glencore operate. The DRC is not the most stable of countries, however, and it is also the world's poorest, with many people, including young children, eking out a meagre existence by illegal and dangerous mining.

In summary I am not trying to paint a gloomy picture here, merely to highlight that an essential ingredient in the welcome green revolution always seems to be overlooked- mining and the supply of the vital raw materials- and the fact that fossil fuels cannot be phased out overnight- they will be needed for many decades to come in order to mine and refine the necessary materials, and to build the wind turbines and vehicles of the future.

It is essential that the internal combustion engine be replaced by electrification, as it is one of the world's biggest killers, due to the choking air pollution that it produces. But we must be realistic in how soon we can achieve the green revolution objectives, and 2030 seems very optimistic. 

In his announcement, Boris Johnson indicated that the revolution would create jobs in various industries, including the building of new nuclear power stations. These will all be fission reactors, of course, and although they produce relatively clean energy with minimal carbon emissions, any accidents that occur can be catastrophic, as witnessed at Chernobyl and Fukushima, and there is, of course, the problem of disposal of the nuclear waste.

Only last year, Johnson waxed lyrical about the future of nuclear fusion (posting of 30th October 2019), but there was no mention of this in his announcement. Politicians, unfortunately, seem to have very short memories and many do not grasp the basic concepts of science and engineering. A great deal of international collaborative work is being done to develop viable fusion reactors and once the immense engineering challenges have been overcome, it may be that in the not too distant future this abundant source of limitless clean energy may have made the many wind turbines which will dot our countryside and coastal waters obsolete. The run up to 2050 is going to be very interesting! A shame that I won't be around to report on it.

@barrywills

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Physical Separation '21 and IntegratedMinPro '21 postponed until 2022

It is with regret that, due to the pandemic, we have had to postpone Physical Separation '21 and IntegratedMinPro '21, which were scheduled to be held in Falmouth next June. We now plan to run these conferences back to back in Falmouth in June 2022.

We are extremely grateful to our sponsors and media partners, who have continued to support us during these difficult times.

We had planned an exciting historical tour of the St. Just tin and copper mining area next year, and this tour will be retained for both conferences in 2022.

We are also pleased that our IntegratedMinPro '21 keynote speaker, Dr. Osvaldo Bascur, has agreed to present his lecture in 2022. The lecture will be based on Osvaldo's recently published book Digital Transformation for the Process Industries: A Roadmap.

This is also a very early call for abstracts, which should be submitted by the end of 2021. All papers will be invited for peer-review for special issues of Minerals Engineering.

We hope to see you in 2022 when hopefully the world will be back to normal.

Friday, 20 November 2020

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Tuesday, 17 November 2020

De la Pirotechnia: A Review by Dr Franklin MM White

 Very few people will have heard of this book but I am grateful to Dr. Franklin White for bringing it to our attention. Franklin is the author of the recently published biography of his father, Frank White, Miner with a Heart of Gold (posting of 21st September).

Franklin writes:

Among the historic works in my bookshelves are translations of two classics in mining and metallurgy: De la Pirotechnia1 by Vannoccio Biringuccio, and Georgius Agricola’s De re Metallica2. Agricola’s iconic work is widely recognized, but Biringuccio’s seminal contribution less so although he was the first to publish a range of knowledge that until then had been transmitted almost exclusively by oral tradition.

De la Pirotechnia published in 1540 in Italian, is considered the first printed book on the processes of ore reduction and the applied metal arts. It predates Agricola’s Latin text De re Metallica by 16 years. Both works were published posthumously, in the year following their deaths.

An English translation of De la Pirotechnia was published in 1942 by The American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers.  It was written by Cyril Stanley Smith (a senior chemist on the Manhattan Project) and Martha Teach Gnudi (medical historian and translator).

Introduction to the Translation
Translators Smith and Gnudi evince deep respect for Biringuccio’s contributions. In their highly informative introduction, they examine his life, delve into the technical background and its place in metallurgical literature, and examine subsequent editions and translations. They observe that early translations into Latin, French, Spanish and English failed to adequately attribute the author; only one early translation into English (by Richard Eden in 1552), gave full acknowledgement.

As Harvey S Mudd (California Institute of Technology, and a mining engineer) states in his Foreword: 

“… Whether Biringuccio was a man of learning or a scholar according to the standards of his time we do not know, but today we recognize him as a man of science who gave his wisdom to succeeding generations… It can be surmised that … he received his training in the craftsman shops where the industrial arts were taught and flourished alongside the fine arts … Biringuccio was a practical, studious, unromantic figure with no favors to dispense.”

Smith and Gnudi note that Agricola in De re Metallica (1556) offers this measured recognition: 

“… Vannoccio Biringuccio of Sienna, a wise man experienced in many matters, wrote in vernacular Italian on the subject of the melting, separating and alloying of metals … by reading his directions, I have refreshed my memory of those things which I saw in Italy; as for many matters on which I write he did not touch upon them at all, or touched but lightly”. 

Yet, according to Smith and Gnudi: 

“Agricola’s ‘refreshing of his memory’ consisted of copying in extenso, without further acknowledgement, the earlier authors accounts of mercury and sulphur distillation, glass and steel making, and the recovery by crystallization of saltpeter, alum, salt and vitriol together with other less important sections. Agricola usually added a superior illustration and often provided valuable additional details.”

De la Pirotechnia 
In a single volume, De la Pirotechnia documents the technical aspects of mining, assaying, smelting and metal working. It contains ninety-eight chapters organized within ten “books”, supported by eighty-four wood-cut illustrations, and four appendices: clearly a work of major scholarship. 

Typical wood-cut illustration

As Biringuccio succinctly states (as translated): 

… in which are fully treated not only every kind and sort of mineral but also all that is necessary for the practice of those things belonging to the arts of smelting or casting metals and all related subjects. 

De la Pirotechnia provides insight into Biringuccio’s scientific objectivity and skepticism. He can be viewed as a forerunner to what we now consider the scientific approach. According to Smith:

“Few sixteenth-century works are so utterly devoid of superstition. Biringuccio recognizes that ill-luck is nothing but ignorance or carelessness and says that the founder can assure fortunes favoring him by careful attention to details. He laughs at those who use the divining rod and scorns the pseudo-magic of the alchemists … Though he ridicules their general approach, he concedes that practical alchemists have produced a number of useful things … 

Biringuccio’s approach is largely experimental … The state of chemical knowledge at the time permitted no other sound approach ... he does not follow the alchemists in their blind acceptance of theory which leads them to discard experimental evidence if it does not conform …”

"It was men like Biringuccio, the practical metalworkers, dyers, pottery makers, alum boilers and kindred artisans, who accumulated the basic facts for a chemical science during the period when learned men of church and university were engaged in lengthy but barren theological disputation. The artisans were the true scientists of this period, and if they lacked the flash of genius to produce a consistent theoretical framework, it must be remembered that even genius could do nothing without a reservoir of established fact…”

Life of Biringuccio
As portrayed by Gnudi, Biringuccio led an extraordinary life. He was born in Siena in 1480. His father, an architect, was superintendent of streets for the city, under the patronage of Pandolpho Petrucci (1452-1512), lord of the Republic of Siena, which consisted of Siena and surrounding Tuscany. 

In his early years, he travelled widely in Italy and Germany to pursue knowledge of mining and metals. On returning to Siena, he was tasked by Petrucci to direct the nearby iron mines. Following Pandolpho’s death, Petrucci family patronage continued under the auspices of son Borghese, who appointed him to the Siena Armory. In 1515, a popular uprising forced Borghese and his followers to flee Siena. Biringuccio and Francesco Castori, head of the mint, were accused of having debased the coinage alloy with the consent of Borghese. When he failed to appear in 1516 to answer these charges Biringuccio was exiled as “a traitor”. He travelled about Italy, including Rome and Naples, and visited Sicily in 1517.

In 1523 Pope Clement VII caused the reinstatement of Fabio Petrucci, a younger son of Pandolpho; Biringuccio’s sentence was revoked, his property restored, and his Armory position reinstated. In 1524 he was granted a monopoly on the production of saltpeter (potassium nitrate, used in gunpowder). But two years later, the people of Siena rose once more against the Petrucci and expelled them. Biringuccio was again declared rebel and his property confiscated. Between 1526 and 1529 Biringuccio entered the service of Alfonso I d’Este, lord of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, and made a second trip to Germany. In 1529 he cast the enormous culverin (long barreled cannon) for the Florentine Republic. 

When Siena’s political factions made peace in 1530, Biringuccio again returned: in 1531 he held office as a city Senator and in 1535 succeeded the famous Baldassare Peruzzi as architect and director of the Opera del Duomo.  During the years 1531-35 he was employed at times to cast arms and construct fortresses for Pier Luigi Farnese of Parma, Ercole d’Este, and the Venetian Republic.

In 1536 Biringuccio was offered a post in Rome, in the name of Pope Paul III.  Thus, in 1538, he became head of the papal foundry and director of papal munitions. He died in Rome in 1539, the year before his De la Pirotechnia was published in Venice in 1540.

Summary:
While Biringuccio came from an educated and respected family, and enjoyed the confidence of Siena’s ruling family, he was not considered a true scholar by the norms of this time. A self-made man who learned by viewing and actually doing the work that was his passion, his unusual gift was a desire to document what he had learned. Thereby, he produced the first printed book dealing with the processes of ore reduction and the applied metal arts. That this was written in vernacular Italian led his work to be accorded less prestige than that of contemporaries who wrote in Latin, then considered the language of educated people across all fields. Nonetheless, that he was eventually appointed head of the papal foundry and director of papal munitions, is some measure of how his scientific and management talents were valued and trusted by the establishment of the day; he was competent and could get the job done. These realities conceded, his values would likely fit in better today than many of his peers: he did not blindly accept theory or discard experimental evidence if it did not conform. His belief that “ill-luck is nothing but ignorance or carelessness” and insistence on “careful attention to details” belong comfortably within modern management theory and good practice.  

De la Pirotechnia (English translation) is on the internet; some hard copies are still available. The wisdom of a sixteenth century man of science has come down to us: what can we learn from his story? 

Franklin MM White, Victoria BC, Canada, November 10, 2020

1Biringuccio V. De la Pirotechnia (1540). The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringucci translated from the Italian with an introduction and notes by Cyril Stanley Smith & Martha Teach Gnudi. The American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, New York. 1942.
2Agricola G. De re Metallica (1556). In Hoover HC, Hoover LH. Trans London: The Mining Magazine 1912. Republished by Dover Publications. New York. 1950.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Memories of Minerals Engineering 2000, Cape Town

The last MEI Conference before the pandemic was Flotation '19, and it seems strange not to be travelling to Cape Town in November, something Barbara and I have done for the past 24 years. 

The first MEI Conference in Cape Town began 20 years ago today. Minerals Engineering 2000 was the first of a number of events to be held at the Mount Nelson, one of Africa's premier hotels. We organised the meeting in association with the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch and the Cape Technikon, and sponsorship was provided by CSIRO, Mintek, Multotec and Hicom International.

Around 125 delegates, representing 18 countries from as far as Australia, North and South America, Europe and Asia, attended the conference, which contained 84 high quality presentations, selected from among the over 150 abstracts submitted to MEI. 

It is always interesting to look back at old conference photos to see who you can recognise and this conference is no exception:

@barrywills

Monday, 9 November 2020

We welcome Nouryon, the latest sponsor of Flotation '21

Nouryon, formerly known as AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, is an independent global specialty chemicals leader and was a sponsor of last year's Flotation '19. We are pleased to welcome the company back as a sponsor of Flotation '21.
Nouryon at Flotation '19

There is a call for abstracts for Flotation '21, which will be held at the Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town from November 8-11 and will include a keynote lecture by Prof. James Finch, Emeritus Professor of McGill University, Canada.  Entitled "A Mineral Processor’s Journey" it will be an appreciation of the life and work of Prof. Graeme Jameson, of the University of Newcastle, Australia, who has attended all but one of the MEI flotation series.

Let me take this opportunity of thanking our sponsors, who have supported us throughout these difficult times.

Latest updates: #Flotation21

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

An important announcement for contributors to Minerals Engineering

Elsevier is pleased to inform you that as of the 13th of November 2020 the submission system of the journal Minerals Engineering, currently operating on the Elsevier Editorial System (EES), will migrate to a new system, Editorial Manager.

Editorial Manager is a state-of-the-art manuscript handling software for authors, reviewers and editors to handle the end-to-end peer review process for academic journals. Elsevier was pleased to acquire Editorial Manager in late 2018, and since that date has been moving all its journals to this one system.

Editorial Manager offers many advantages over EES and we are delighted to finally be moving Minerals Engineering to this system. We have many plans to implement new features in the system designed around saving time and effort for authors, reviewers and editors alike, and we hope that you will find these useful.

Before the migration date the EES site will be completely closed to users in order to allow a data transfer between the systems. During this time, it will not be possible to submit manuscripts, consult papers, or check the status of manuscripts. We anticipate this transfer time to be brief, one to two days, after which EM will be accessible again to all users as the sole peer review system. All current submissions and their statuses will therefore be transferred as they are currently in EES to EM, allowing a smooth transition.

In the days previous to this transfer a banner will be placed on EES to advise users of the imminent transition; we urge you to please complete your submissions when you can and update yourselves on the manuscript handling status before the migration date as this will not be possible during the down time.

If you have any questions about Editorial Manager, please do get in touch at j.bayliss@elsevier.com, otherwise you may like to familiarise yourself with the system via a dedicated training session (available in English, Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

October: the second wave hits hard

A depressing month in which the virus surged throughout Europe, and strict regional lockdowns were imposed on many parts of the UK. The month's international news was dominated by President Trump and his wife Melania testing positive for the virus, along with half of the White House staff. Hardly surprising considering the almost complete lack of precautions which had been observed during the preceding weeks. The President, pumped full of a cocktail of drugs, declared himself fit and well and raring to go within a few days of being taken to hospital, and was soon back on the campaign trail, addressing a huge crowd of socially-undistanced followers in Florida.


Also in the news last month:

Back here in UK, the Government has been considering bringing forward its date on which petrol and diesel cars will be replaced by electric vehicles from 2035 to 2030, but with little thought, as ever, as to how the raw materials  supply would meet the demand, something which I mentioned in my recent interview with the Critical Minerals Association

Copper is not only vital to all types of batteries but also to other components of electric vehicles, such as motors and charging equipment, so copper is expected to dominate the surge in demand for battery metals by volume over the coming decades.

However a deficit in the copper market is set to deepen over the next several years as supply of the widely used metal struggles to keep up with strong demand, compounded by the proliferation of electric vehicles, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence commodity analyst Thomas Rutland.

"Refined output is expected to increase by 4.3% year on year to 24.7 million tonnes in 2021 after decreasing by 2.1% to 23.6 Mt in 2020, primarily as a result of disruptions caused by the Coronavirus pandemic,"  he said.

Work stoppages due to measures designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus have stalled existing capacity and have delayed investments with long-term repercussions for supply. Chile has been the worst affected followed by the U.S. and Peru. As of late September, 2.9% of annual global supply remained suspended due to the pandemic, with Chile and Peru accounting for more than half of the missing 702,000 tonnes of output estimated for 2020 and in the U.S., 217,000 tonnes of capacity was lost.

There is also a growing demand for lithium for use in the batteries for electric vehicles and hi-tech technologies. 

Most of the world’s lithium for electric cars is currently extracted from brines in Chile and Argentina and from hard rock mined in Australia and processed in China. Last year China produced 79% of the world’s lithium hydroxide that is used in most electric cars in Europe and the US. 

Lithium extraction in Chile, which involves evaporating the brine in vast evaporation ponds, has been opposed by local indigenous groups who say it threatens the water supply and fragile ecosystem of the Atacama Desert, one of the world’s driest deserts. Lithium from Australia is also coming under increased scrutiny due to the fact it is processed in China using fossil fuels.

The UK has no lithium production at present but just over a month ago  it was reported (posting of 18th September) that Cornish Lithium had found “globally significant” lithium grades in geothermal waters and was preparing for pilot plant work to extract lithium in a zero-carbon operation. In mid-October the company began a crowdfunding campaign, the goal being to raise £1.5 million, but within 30 minutes the target had been exceeded and by mid-afternoon it had raised £3.9 million from more than 2,400 investors to support the company's next phase of development. When crowdfunding ended after three days £5.2 million had been raised, a wonderful vote of confidence in Cornish Lithium, which bodes well for the future.

It was also announced in September that Cornish Metals, who are redeveloping the old South Crofty mine in Camborne, had reported a high-grade intersection of 2.19% tin more than 100 metres below any historic mining at South Crofty. A week later the company reported findings of 10.33% tin at depths of between 974.20m and 976.80m, including 39.60% tin from 975.77m, so the future looks promising for mining in Cornwall. 

So some good news amongst the gloom, but October for us was particularly depressing as half of it should have been spent in Cape Town, for Hi-Tech Metals '20 and Process Mineralogy '20 at the Vineyard Hotel, and then the IMPC at the Convention Centre. All cancelled of course and now we have the 'new normal' of virtual conferences. I "attended" my first last month, the Canadian MetSoc's Conference of Metallurgists and while it was very well organised, with access to live and pre-recorded presentations, it certainly highlighted the enormous benefits of pre-Covid physical meetings. However there is little doubt that we must get used to these online events, at least for the foreseeable future, as an abrupt end to the pandemic does not appear to be on the near horizon.

@barrywills