Friday, 28 May 2021

The Cornish Mining Sundowner springs back to life, with news of mining activities in Cornwall

People!  At last, a meeting with a whole group of people. With last week's further easing of Coronavirus restrictions, allowing gatherings of up to 30 people to meet outdoors, the Cornish Mining Sundowner was back last evening, after a 9 month gap. It's been a dismal May, one of the wettest on record, but we were lucky to find a dry window for a few hours last night, for what turned out to be technically an illegal gathering, of over 35 people, on a chilly Gyllyngvase beach in Falmouth.
It was great to see the regulars again, and quite a few new faces, and to talk about our lockdown experiences since our last get together in August of last year. 
And there was much recent mining news relevant to Cornwall to talk about.
Earlier in the month a new book exposing the ticking time-bomb that lies beneath our new green technological order and the critical supply of rare metals was reviewed (MEI blog 13 May 2021), and on the same day that the International Energy Agency published its report on the looming shortage of critical metals it was reported that officials at the Department for Business were discussing options to protect the United Kingdom’s access to vital materials including lithium and cobalt. The option of the creation of a national stockpile of rare earth metals was being considered amid rising fears that the country’s efforts to adopt electric cars are at risk from a Chinese stranglehold on supplies.
It was reported that Britain could build a national stockpile to avoid shortages, support attempts to create domestic sources such as potential lithium mines in Cornwall, or use its diplomatic network to secure supplies from abroad in partnership with private businesses.
Lithium is at the heart of the batteries which supply electricity to the motors for electric vehicles, but despite its role as a critical raw material, the controversial nature of the sustainability of lithium operations is receiving much attention and companies positioned along the battery supply chain continue to invest in research and technology to reduce the environmental impact of lithium extraction, Government pressure and a rise in Environment Social and Governance (ESG), motivating companies to seek innovative new methods of extraction.
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 (MEI Blog 23 November 2020).
As a part of the "European Green Deal", the European Commission proposed in December 2020 that, beginning July 2024, only rechargeable electric vehicles and industrial batteries with declared carbon footprints will be permitted into the EU, so operations inside the EU have already started to invest in more sustainable extraction techniques, such as direct lithium extraction (DLE) techniques, adopted by Cornish Lithium Ltd (MEI Blog 18 September 2020). DLE technology is likely to dominate the future lithium mining sector within geothermal brines in Europe and Cornwall. Geothermal lithium extraction has a much lower carbon footprint than both hard rock and brine extraction methods, as well as reduced water usage.
On the subject of lithium, there was interesting news from USA this month of an innovative technology that uses magnetic nanoparticles to capture valuable materials from brines, developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and its licensee, Moselle Technologies. According to these organisations, the core nanoparticle in the development consists of magnetite, which is used to anchor an adsorbent shell that selectively binds the compounds of interest. 
The nanoparticles can be introduced into brines from geothermal plants, mining effluents and seawater, where they latch onto free-floating target compounds. When exposed to a magnet, the nanoparticle’s iron core migrates toward the magnet, along with the critical material to which it is bound, and can be filtered from the brine. As it awaits its patent approval, the technology is being adapted for the capture of lithium.
Hordes of international delegates should have been descending on Falmouth next month for Biomining '21 and Sustainable Minerals '21, which are now online of course. A Camborne School of Mines (CSM) lecturer tweeted "Underpinning a sustainable and green future is effective resource management and 'materials solutions'. This is mining". In reply CSM, University of Exeter tweeted "Couldn't have put it better ourselves". I wonder if they realise the supreme irony of this, as the University recently made the decision to abandon the undergraduate mining degree (MEI Blog 13 September 2020)?
But there was good news from CSM, which despite the imminent demise of the mining degree, is still upholding its reputation as a centre of excellence. 
A team of international researchers, including Dr Rich Crane from CSM, has developed a new method to extract metals, such as copper, from their parent ore body by electrokinetic in-situ leaching.
Although in-situ leaching is already being applied to uranium mining, the research team has provided a proof of concept for the application of an electric field to control the movement of an acid within a low permeability copper-bearing ore deposit to selectively dissolve and recover the metal in situ.  Experts from the University of Western Australia, CSIRO, the Technical University of Denmark and CSM, have demonstrated that a targeted electric field can be used to dissolve and then recover copper in situ from the ore, by drilling electrodes directly into an ore body. An electric current is then applied which can result in the transport of electrically charged metal ions, such as copper, through the rock via a process called electromigration.
The researchers believe the new technique has the potential to transform the mining industry, because it has the capability to dissolve metals from a wide range of ore deposits, including copper, gold and nickel, that were previously considered inaccessible. Furthermore, due to the non-invasive nature of the extraction, the research team is hopeful that the study will help usher in a more sustainable future for the industry.  
The study was recently published in Science Advances and Dr. Crane, a co-author of the article, who was unable to attend the sundowner, was quoted as saying: “This new approach, analogous to “key-hole surgery”, has the potential to provide a more sustainable future for the mining industry, by enabling the recovery of metals, such as copper, which are urgently needed for our global transition to a new Green Economy, whilst avoiding unwanted environmental disturbance and energy consumption.” 
It was good to see the Deep Digital Cornwall Team at the sundowner. Deep Digital Cornwall is a new ERDF funded project connected to the underground. Launched in early 2021, Deep Digital Cornwall is a £4.2 million project that provides SMEs based in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly access to research skills, knowledge, innovation expertise, new datasets and state-of-the-art immersive technology facilities for 3D and 4D data visualisation.
The Deep Digital Cornwall team
The project team is led by CSM and the Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence with delivery partners Cornish Lithium, Cornwall Resources and the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications
Through collaborations with the project team, SMEs will be supported to tackle digital research and innovation challenges that will unlock business opportunities and support the economic growth of their organisations and the region. Through research, innovation, consultancy and access to the project’s £775k grant fund, SMEs will develop new products, processes and services in sectors that connect with the underground environment, creating jobs and forging long-term collaborative partnerships. To learn more about this, join the free webinar on June 2nd.
It was great to see everyone last night, and hopefully we will do this again next month. If you would like to be alerted to Cornish Mining Sundowners, please let me know via and I will add you to the data base.

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