Saturday, 1 May 2021

April update: Coronavirus; tin, the 'forgotten' critical metal; the increasing importance of the mining industry

Covid took a back seat in the news early in the month with the news of the death of the Queen's consort, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at the age of 99. I met him very briefly in 1980 during the Royal Visit to Camborne School of Mines, where we discussed froth flotation, which must have made him feel that his visit had not been in vain. The lasting impression at CSM was of a man with a keen sense of humour, who was very ready to put you at ease.

Globally there is little good news on the pandemic, India in particular suffering dreadfully, but here in UK there was a slow return to normality on the 12th of the month, with the reopening of shops and gyms, and pubs and restaurants allowing outdoor eating and drinking, perhaps not an appealing prospect in Falmouth, where the mid-day temperature was 8C.

First pint of the year

Very many businesses have had to adapt or die during the pandemic, and MEI has made an enormous evolutionary leap which we could not have envisaged just over a year ago.  After a void of 17 months, our first online conference, Comminution '21, was successfully held two weeks ago, and the necessary move to virtual events was made possible by the efforts of Amanda and Jon, the next generation. For the first time Jon opened a comminution conference, his recorded address being filmed and edited by Amanda's eldest son, William. I took a back seat and attended the conference as a delegate.

Jon and his nephew William record the opening address

Cornwall is gearing up for the G7 summit at Carbis Bay next month, and in March world leaders made pledges to tackle climate change, the US committing to halving its emissions within a decade and the UK enshrining in law a target of 78% cuts from 1990 levels by 2035.

Many environmental groups want these targets to be achieved earlier but the sad irony is that it is many of these who also demonstrate against mining, the very industry on which these targets are reliant on (Is Zero Carbon by 2050 Attainable?).

Copper in the past has not been regarded as a critical metal, but it should be now. It is the metal needed in increasingly large amounts to produce renewables and electric vehicles. But even now supply is barely keeping up with demand. Many large mines have a head grade of only around 0.5% copper, lower than the tailings of most mines not so long ago. Although ample copper supplies next year and in 2023 will keep the market balanced, mines need to start investing in new capacity soon to meet future demand.

Lithium supply is also critical and new sources must be found to satisfy the demand for battery production. Cornwall will help when the hard rock and brine developments at Cornish Lithium and British Lithium come on stream, but what of tin, which is ready to undergo a resurgence down here in the south west? Very little focus has been given to tin, which is one of the metals critical to achieving the projected green economy, but which has had little exposure compared with lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and rare-earth elements.

Commonly thought of as having a major use as tin-plating in 'tin cans', plating now accounts for only 12-13% of total consumption, behind 15-18% for chemical use. The major use for tin today is in solder to create electrical connections, currently accounting for close to 50% of demand. It is this use in typically small-scale electronic components that makes the metal critical to the energy transition. Every component of the low-carbon economy requires tin, as without it electrons will not flow. While other metals can theoretically be used for this purpose, given the abundance and effectiveness of tin there really is no economic substitute.

What makes the developments in Cornwall so important is that while there is no shortage of existing and potential tin supply, that supply currently comes with environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk, as most tin production comes from countries that have high ESG risk. China, and Indonesia together account for over 50% of mine supply, while Myanmar is currently the third-largest supplier, and production in the DRC is rising quickly.

Tin might become important for another reason. Stanley Wittingham, jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2019 as one of the founding fathers of lithium-ion batteries, has recently reviewed potential for tin in lithium-ion batteries. In his paper published in October 2020 with colleague Fengxia Xin, Wittingham explains how “tin-based materials are strong candidates as the anode for the next generation of lithium-ion batteries”.

It is apparent that the mining industry is going to be vital in the coming decades and that there will be enormous challenges in supplying the critical raw materials, something which much of the world's media and environmental activists seem blissfully unaware of.



  1. Very good stock taking, Barry. I can see more positivity and the smile on Jon shows that he and his nephew William did enjoy--

    Let me repeat myself ,once again that there is no civilisation and progress without MINERALS AND COAL.
    Morning Dr.Lynch talked with the help of Suzy--let me share this also.

  2. Weii said
    What about Li on zchins clay residues ?

    1. Not sure what you mean Nevill. Could you clarify?

  3. Well it's good to see a new era and utilisation of IT in Mineral Industry. Pendamic has slow down / halted Many industries, though I didn't find any impact on MEI blog though. New updates new information and utilisation of IT platform for larger gathering.
    Comminution ,though considered as heart of Mineral Processing plant, more improvement has to seen.
    Looking forward for novel grinding aids for dry grinding and fine size below 10microns...
    Thanks and regards
    Rama Murthy


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