Monday, 1 February 2021

January: Fortress Britain

A grim start to the new year with the new variants of Covid-19 threatening to spread across the country and savage the beleaguered NHS.  On the 4th of the month Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a complete lockdown of the UK. The previous evening he had said that primary schools in much of the UK would remain open, as schools were "perfectly safe", so the following day children returned to school after the Christmas break, to be told in the evening that schools were no longer safe and would have to close until at least mid February.

Parents, including MEI's Jon and Amanda, are having to balance work and home teaching duties and this is true not only in UK but around the world, so I must apologise to those who have submitted manuscripts to Minerals Engineering and are awaiting news of the outcome of assessment of their papers. The stresses of the pandemic are such that many potential reviewers are overworked and there has been an inevitable slowing down of the whole peer-review process.

Couple all that with an egregious storming of the White House by pro-Trump supporters contesting the result of the Presidential election, and leading to five fatalities, then the first week of January wasn't the best way to start a New Year.

From the middle of the month travel into and out of the UK became virtually impossible as most of the travel corridors with the UK were suspended and, coupled with Brexit, Britain became, for the first time in its history, an effectively isolated nation, with a tragic milestone of 100,000 deaths from Covid reached last week, 30,000 more than the number of British civilians killed by bombing raids in the whole of WW2.

However the beginning of the month was also tempered with optimism, as on the same day as the lockdown announcement the first Briton was injected with the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, a silver lining in the cloud of gloom, offering an escape from the mounting horrors of this pandemic. 

Source: Rebecca Hendin/The Guardian
The future is in safe hands

I had my first armful of the Pfizer vaccine two days ago, but aside from Coronavirus, which is the main topic of conversation on everyone's lips, there was news that the 2021 G7 Summit will be held in Cornwall in June, so perhaps fortuitous that MEI's conferences planned for the same week were postponed to the following year and Falmouth's popular Sea Shanty week, also in mid-June, is going virtual. We felt that the 'new norm' wouldn't be with us by then and it will be interesting to see if the G7 goes ahead as planned.

There was also some good news on the ever increasing importance of Cornwall to the mining industry. Geothermal Engineering Ltd continues to push forward with the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power project. The production well is 5.275km deep and the temperature is 188 degrees C. GEL has signed a power purchase agreement with Ecotricity whereby a minimum of 3 MW of electricity, enough to power 6,000 homes, will be distributed to Ecotricity’s customers via the National Grid. It is the first time that geothermal electricity will be produced and sold in the UK.

GEL also hopes to supply heat energy to a new local rum distillery which will use zero carbon heat from the plant. The Cornish Geothermal Distillery Company has submitted plans for the UK’s first geothermally heated biome which will be used to mature and then distill sustainable rum.

GEL is hoping to secure planning for future sites around Cornwall over the next two years. Each new site will aim to produce a minimum of 5 MW of renewable baseload electricity and up to 20 MW of renewable heat which will be available 24/7. 

A massive bonus has been the discovery that the geothermal water has a high lithium content and GEL is working closely with Cornish Lithium Ltd to develop zero-carbon lithium extraction from these hot lithium brines, and the Crown Estate, manager of the seabed and much of the foreshore around England, Wales and Northern Ireland, recently announced the outcome of its Minerals Licensing Round, granting Cornish Lithium rights to explore for lithium within geothermal waters in areas off both the north and south coasts of Cornwall.

The world’s ever-increasing demand for car-battery lithium is now focusing on Cornwall where lithium was first identified in 1864. Europe presently has no secure supply of lithium, and nearly all lithium comes from the Central Andes – the desert salars of Chile, Argentina and soon from Bolivia – or from Australia (posting of 23 November 2020). 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 re injected into the rock.

And finally I must mention a short video, in which Cornish Lithium's Senior Geologist (Business Development), Lucy Crane, is interviewed by 10 year old school girl Sophia on the importance of mining to society and what it is like to work in the industry. Lucy has a keen interest in furthering the interests of young mining professionals and in promoting the mining industry to students, and sits on the committee of both the Young Mining Professionals and Women in Mining (UK). I would urge all readers of this blog to make teachers of children of every age aware of this inspirational video.

Lucy and Sophia

It might inspire youngsters to train as mining engineers but Camborne School of Mines (CSM) is the only university department in UK offering a degree in mining engineering. In September I reported that the University of Exeter had announced a plan to ‘pause’ recruitment to the BEng Mining Engineering programme at CSM for the 2021-22 academic year, but stressed that it hadn’t been scrapped, instead recruitment was paused while it looked to reshape the opportunities to study mining and related topics. 

Following 5 months of deliberations, the University decided in January to continue the ‘pause’ in offering the Mining Engineering undergraduate degree programme. It is not likely that recruitment will resume in 2022 so there will be no mining graduates after 2024 when the current cohort has completed their BEng degree.

Camborne School of Mines Association has tried to influence the decision by submitting letters of support from its members, many of whom wrote to the Vice Chancellor Prof. Lisa Roberts in September and October 2020.   Unfortunately, these letters were dismissed as  “sentiment”.

So this effectively brings an end to CSM's proud record of training graduate mining engineers, which has its origins back to 1888. And all at a time when there is a resurgence in mining activity in Cornwall and Boris Johnson, in bringing the G7 to Cornwall, has talked enthusiastically of Cornwall's proud mining heritage.



  1. If there's one lesson that we should have learnt from the last year it is that we must think long term. CSM obviously does not think that this applies to them. A great shame for such a prestigious institution and I hope they will rethink this decision without delay!

    1. The decision to 'pause' is that of Exeter University, not CSM

    2. In that case The comment applies to Exeter University!

  2. Barry: I do care about mining education for young, often independent, adventurous young people that have felt the bond with the earth and its bounty. In that regard, I wonder whether Norway would be interested in sponsoring CSM via the U. of Trondheim, possibly. In the post war period many Norwegian students came to Aberdeen. Trondheim in those days had a quota system, Norway was poor. Before the war non-quota Norwegians went to Germany to study engineering and when I started visiting Falconbridge’s Nikkelverk refinery, it were the plant workers that mastered English (because most had experienced a stint of seafaring), not the engineers. Now of course the engineering language / script is English. So Norwegians look for post high school education in English. Just a thought.

    Another motivation is the earth bounty. When at Delft U, I tried to get the Mining Faculty to adopt a signature: “Crustae Terrae Magistri”, which freely translates as “ Custodians of the Earth Crust”. Responsible wealth extraction from that over which mankind has been given dominion. Earth and the fulness thereof… Not a dirty, dangerous, polluting industry, by definition. This philosophy resonates with young people. Not, unfortunately, did it with the Faculty, too English!

    Gus Van Weert, Oretome Ltd, Canada

    1. Thanks Gus. It will be interesting to see if anyone at CSM responds to this

  3. Hi Barry and colleagues: Just a brief note to say how much I enjoyed the educational video in which senior geologist Lucy Crane, is interviewed by 10 year old school girl Sophia. I plan on doing some of my own dissemination of this engaging conversation. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Franklin. I am sure that Lucy and Sophia will appreciate this

  4. As a graduate of the Faculty of Mining Engineering at the University of Toronto which was closed for thirty years, 5 years after my graduation in 1961, I am reminded that there is constant renaming and re-evaluation of mining programs at many universities, including Exeter. The understanding of mining and its importance to our society should not be toyed with in this way.
    As a student, working in a mine was more exciting than an explorer starting to look for the northwest passage, or an astronomer finding a new galaxy. After drilling and blasting in a drift or stope, the next day I would stand where no man had stood before. Then, with my degree completed I had the chance to live in a frontier town (Timmins, ON) with all its past and ongoing stories of success and excitement.
    I was there when the Kidd Creek Mine was discovered. The District Mine Engineer at a public meeting of professionals told us that gold mining in Timmins had taught us that, "good engineering does not start until the money runs out" (referring to mining gold at a fixed price of $35 US). This challenge suggested that we should look for new and simple ways to solve complex design problems. In my case it has meant that the solution to grinding mill design problems was so simple that anyone could have thought of it.
    Mining is as old as the eras of human existence on this planet. Is it not time that we embrace its value to modern life and learn to teach the next generation about its real importance and ongoing sustainability? Or has the unscrupulous and unsustainable profiting which does still happen, so paralyse us that we cannot see how to overcome it? Our industry depends on better education, not less.

    1. I totally agree with you John, but getting that message out is the difficult bit


If you have difficulty posting a comment, please email the comment to and I will submit on your behalf