Friday, 20 August 2021

August Cornish Mining Sundowner: News of CSM, geothermal energy, lithium processing and women in mining

Cornwall is bursting at the seams with tourists at the moment and Falmouth's Gyllyngvase beach has been packed, so yesterday's Cornish Mining Sundowner was moved back a few metres into the adjacent Queen Mary Gardens. Due to early rain the turnout was, however, fairly low, with only 14 of the regulars appearing.

Most of those attending had some connection to Camborne School of Mines and there was talk of Exeter University’s decision to end recruitment to undergraduate mining engineering for the first time in the 134-year history of CSM (posting of 13 September 2020), which means that there will be no intake of undergraduate mining engineering students this year. Sadly, at a time when the importance of the mining industry is paramount, there is no longer an opportunity for international or home students to study BEng Mining Engineering in the UK.

The irony of this is that this year CSM undergraduate subjects have once again come top of the National Student Satisfaction survey within Exeter University and CSM’s Mining Engineering programme has earned Exeter University its first ever Global Top 10 ranking. The halt to recruitment was implemented shortly after the CSM Association had completed collaborative work on a 5-year strategy for CSM, at the centre of which was a new, purpose-built, dedicated training and education facility, to be known as the Centre of Mining Excellence.

This month the University will be assessing the level of practical support from industry for a flexible, ‘sandwich-style’ Bachelor of Engineering Programme in Mining Engineering. The programme is being designed by CSM mining staff who will continue to highlight the need to meet domestic and international industry requirements to deliver future mining engineers and mine managers.

Let's hope all this come to fruition, and it will be the first major challenge for Prof. Stephen Hesselbo, who has been appointed the new Head of CSM to follow Prof. Kip Jeffrey.  Stephen is an outstanding Earth Sciences researcher who joined CSM in 2013 from the University of Oxford. I was hoping that he might make his sundowner debut last night, but instead it was good to see a former Head of School, CSM's Prof. Frances Wall, with her daughter Alexandra Sweeney, project coordinator for Met4tech, who looks after social media for the Cornwall Mining Alliance, an industry associate for a number of MEI Conferences.

Alexandra and Frances

Frances is very much involved with research into critical minerals and agreed last night to present a keynote at next year's Sustainable Minerals '22. Earlier in the week we also had a similar agreement from Prof. Selo Ndlovu, of Wits University, only the second woman to have held the post of President of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy,

The loss of the mining degree comes at a time when it has been great to see so many young women graduating in mining engineering, something which would have been unheard of when I was at CSM last century, as would a female head of CSM and a woman SAIMM President. In the July sundowner posting former CSM geology lecturer Richard Edwards commented on the visit of CSM MSc Mining Geology students to Ireland for a mix of activity which included a visit to Silvermines. When the group arrived he was told that the girls would not be allowed to go underground, as it would bring bad luck for the mine! "Good to see the times they are a-changing" said Richard. The sad irony of this is that 3500 miles away Afghanistan is returning to medieval rule with women and girls likely to suffer most. President Joe Biden, having withdrawn American troops, has effectively washed his hands of the country, while Boris Johnson says that the UK is looking at 'diplomatic solutions'.   

To rub salt in the wounds it was deeply disappointing to hear that Afghans who received Chevening Scholarships from the UK government to study in the UK this year were told that they would not be granted visas due to "administration issues." After intensive petitioning, and amid fears among the students that their scholarships could make them targets of the Taliban, Johnson intervened to say efforts would be made to accelerate their visas, hours after the Foreign Office defended its decision to prevent them taking up places this September. Let's hope that they, and their families, find a way to leave the country amidst all the chaos.

At a time when new blood is needed for the mining industry, developments in Cornwall proceed at a fast pace. Earlier in the month Geothermal Engineering Limited (GEL) announced that it was seeking development of a plant with two deep wells on land at Penhallow, near Perranporth. It hopes to go live in 2022 producing power and heat from the hot granite rocks, which will be used to supply a housing development for up to 10,000 people on the outskirts of Truro. The company has lodged a 'screening opinion' with Cornwall Council to see whether an Environmental Impact Assessment is required in preparation for a planning application for three more geothermal power plants at sites near Pool, Helston and Porthtowan.

It was great to see Dr. Tony Batchelor last night, the man who started all this, known affectionately as the 'father of Cornish geothermal energy'. While at CSM as a rock mechanics lecturer he initiated, and was the Project Director, of the UK/EEC Hot Dry Rocks geothermal project, and in 1985 he and others from the project formed GeoScience Limited, which he now owns. Until May of last year Geoscience was project manager and Delivery Partner for GEL's United Downs Deep Geothermal Power project.

Tony Batchelor (2nd left) with Pete Shepherd, Nick Clarke and Nigel MacDonald

As an added bonus GEL recently announced that concentrations of lithium higher than 250mg per litre had been found at depth, higher than in geothermal waters anywhere else in the world, the company now believing it could be able to produce 4,000 tonnes of lithium a year by 2026.  

At the July mining sundowner there was news that Cornish Lithium was testing different technologies to extract the metal from the hot geothermal brines a kilometre below the earth, and after removing the lithium injecting the water back underground so the process can be repeated. The energy used to power this process will be from a renewable source, the natural heat from the deep rocks being converted into electricity, making the process carbon-neutral.

During the G7 conference the project received a lot of media attention, due to the increasing global awareness of the responsible production of lithium. GeoCubed, a collaboration between Cornish Lithium and GEL has recently been established to construct a pilot plant to assess the potential for co-producing lithium and geothermal energy, and announced at the end of last month that French extraction tech firm GeoLith has been selected to provide their Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology for the pilot plant, which is due to be commissioned at United Downs in West Cornwall by the end of March 2022 with a nominal capacity of 10 tonnes of Lithium Carbonate Equivalent per year.

GeoLith has developed a novel "Li-Capt" process that allows direct extraction of lithium from all waters and brines. It also offers the "Li-Mag" process, which allows the purification of concentrated lithium brines. The pilot plant aims to confirm that lithium can be produced in Cornwall from geothermal brine. It will process the 140 square metres of deep geothermal water successfully obtained during GEL's recent testing at its United Downs site.

"The Pilot Plant being constructed at Cornish Lithium's test site at United Downs will enable us to demonstrate what modern, low-carbon mineral extraction looks like as well as demonstrating the viability of DLE technology on Cornish geothermal waters," said Jeremy Wrathall, CEO and Founder of Cornish Lithium.

Hopefully there will be more good news at the next Cornish Mining Sundowner, scheduled for September 16th from 5.30pm, with a welcome return, after 19 months, to Falmouth's Chain Locker pub.


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