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Southwest Mineral Exploration & Mine Development Trip – HM Treasury & the Dept for Business & Trade

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

On the 20-21 of September, the Critical Minerals Association (UK) joined officials from His Majesty’s Treasury (HM Treasury) and the Department for Business & Trade (DBT) on a tour of various mineral exploration and mine development sites in the Southwest of England.

Critical minerals are essential to enable the UK’s Green Industrial Revolution. They are vital resources for manufacturing modern and renewable technologies: mobile phones, computers, banknotes, solar panels, wind turbines, EVs, aerospace and medical applications-- the list goes on. A low-carbon future is not possible without them. The importance of minerals in fighting the climate crisis is being acknowledged by governments all over the globe, but the UK is falling behind.


Right now there exists a unique opportunity for the UK Government to raise awareness about the mineral requirements of the energy transition, and pioneer responsible mineral extraction and processing. Many critical mineral supply chains are currently dominated by China, who's opaque ESG credentials and recent export restrictions on gallium and germanium, as well other geopolitical tensions and developments (e.g. the impact of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, tensions over Taiwan) demonstrate where policy is headed. The UK must onshore and diversify its critical mineral supply if it hopes to responsibly achieve Net Zero.


Government has a key role to play in developing alternative and responsible critical mineral supply chains, and levelling up the Southwest of England should be part of its planning. Former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore's Net Zero Review concluded that the UK could be doing more to reap the economic benefits of green growth. Given the right support, companies such as Imerys British Lithium, Cornish Lithium, Cornish Metals, Cornwall Resources, Tungsten West, and academic institutions such as the Camborne School of Mines could generate thousands of jobs for Britons and contribute millions of pounds to the UK economy.


This two-day trip aimed to illuminate to UK Government the great economic potential that exists in the Southwest. Fostering minerals exploration and mine development in the region and beyond would reinvigorate and transform the UK economy into one properly equipped to achieve Net Zero. The energy transition should not be viewed as a challenge; it is, as Chris Skidmore said, a most historic opportunity.


The trip also provided a unique opportunity for Industry to communicate their experiences to Government. This last year Cornish Metals raised up to £40 million, supported largely by a strategic investment from Vision Blue Resources; Imerys British Lithium was announced as a winner of the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s Scale Up Readiness Validation (SuRV) competition, securing £2 million from the Automotive Transformation Fund; and, most recently on 8 August, Cornish Lithium secured a funding package of US$277m from the UK Infrastructure Bank, Energy & Minerals Group (EMG), and TechMet, followed by an additional £5.1 million raised through crowdfunding.


The momentum ignited by the publication of the UK’s first Critical Minerals Strategy in 2022, as well as the creation of various Government grants and innovation competitions, has propelled action and discourse on critical minerals-- but big challenges still remain, and must be addressed.


Tungsten West


The group first travelled to the historic tungsten-tin Hemerdon Mine near Plympton, Devon. The mining development company Tungsten West purchased the mine back in 2019 and has been devoted to restarting production since. Categorised as a world class deposit, the Hemerdon Mine possesses the second largest reserve of tungsten in the world, and is the largest tungsten deposit in the world not currently being mined. The site retains a partially developed open pit, a complete processing plant, an integrated mine waste facility, workshops, administration offices, and all associated mine site infrastructure.


Officials from HM Treasury and DBT were greeted by Tungsten West’s Nigel Widdowson (Chief Financial Officer), Marica Lyndon (Executive Assistant), and Lucy Clifford (HR Director), as well as Sue Penaluna, Principal Planning Officer at Devon County Council. Nigel and his team presented on the strategic importance of tungsten, as well as the economic potential of the project. Re-starting production at the Hemerdon Mine would propel Tungsten West to become one of the largest employers in Plymouth, providing over 250 direct jobs and supporting even more local and regional jobs through an extensive supply chain. In the long term, it would strengthen the national, economic, and energy security of the UK and its allies.

Attendees with a group of Tungsten West’s geologists, viewing the site of the open pit.

After the presentations and ensuing discussions, the visiting delegation was led by a group of Tungsten West’s geologists on a brief tour of the mine’s impressively comprehensive site infrastructure and facilities, as well as a view of the mine pit. Complex and overlapping planning and permitting processes are among factors that have inhibited the re-starting of mining operations at Hemerdon. Sue Penaluna emphasised that some public bodies are suffering from limited resources, legal processes have to be observed, long response times to some enquiries have resulted in recurrent delays at Tungsten West to gaining permits, and consequently frustrated private investment away from the project.


The company also cited the energy crisis and the abolition of the Red Diesel rebate as additional operational barriers rendering the UK uncompetitive in the global market. Tungsten West has suitable sites to generate both wind and solar energy, but once again faces planning uncertainty to obtain permissions to develop renewable energy sources on their brownfield site.


Cornwall Resources

The group then travelled to the village of Kelly Bray in Cornwall, where Cornwall Resources Limited (CRL) is currently conducting mineral exploration and development at its Redmoor Project. Since Roman times the Redmoor area has been the subject of extensive historic mining for lodes of tin, copper, tungsten, lead, and silver.


CRL commenced its active exploration at Redmoor in January 2017. With 2 drilling campaigns and over 14,000 meters of core drilled so far, CRL’s data has led to the definition of a significant and world-class underground high-grade mineral resource compromising tin, tungsten, and copper. External consultants conducted an independent economic assessment as part of a Scoping Study and also found the Redmoor project to be economically attractive. The team at CLR are presently engaged in work to develop the Project towards the completion of feasibility studies and related exploration activities.


Upon arrival the delegation was greeted by Peter Wale (Director) and Rowan Thorne (Senior Geologist), who delivered a presentation on CRL’s exploration activities and the growing importance of tungsten. They also provided examples of incentives used in other nations for critical minerals projects as suggestions for UK policy initiatives. Peter stated: “Cornwall has outstanding mineral resources which have never been more critical or intrinsically valuable. Given the wider geopolitical environment, it is imperative that Government assists to ensure the UK prospers from the long-term benefits of these resources. CRL is in East Cornwall, which needs economic stimulus and assistance— a project like ours can truly deliver and reward the strong stakeholder and community support.”


Peter and Rowan present and showcase some of CRL’s high grade drill core.

Afterwards Rowan showcased CRL’s drill core, before answering HM Treasury and DBT’s questions on the importance of stakeholder engagement, their experiences with planning and permitting, as well as how CRL ensures its drilling campaigns are low-impact and do not disturb the local community. The Company shared that it surrounds its drilling sites with walls of haybales to provide a natural soundproof system. Purchasing the haybales is a preliminary way of ‘giving back’ to the local farmers, demonstrating to the community that CRL is there to economically aid the area and bring more opportunities.



Imerys British Lithium

Bright and early on the second day, government officials visited the Imerys British Lithium Pilot Plant near St Austell in Cornwall. They were welcomed by Andrew Smith (CEO, Imerys British Lithium), Jane Devereux (UK Communications Manager, Imerys), and Sue Bradbury (Consultant, Imerys) who led a tour of the Pilot Plant and the process of how battery-grade lithium is produced. A smaller group was also invited to visit a nearby mine set where drilling is underway.


Imerys British Lithium is an innovative research and development firm, and the first company to drill for lithium in the UK. Since 2017 they have conducted drilling, exploration activities, and metallurgical testwork that has culminated in the creation of a unique and environmentally sustainable extraction process. With financial support from Innovate UK and the Automotive Transformation Fund, Imerys British Lithium has since successfully designed, constructed, and commissioned the world’s first end-to-end lithium pilot plant. Their Inferred Mineral Resource of 161 million tonnes (with a lithium oxide content of 0.54%) stands as the largest lithium resource in the UK, and ranks among the most substantial in Europe.

Andrew Smith showing the group Imerys British Lithium's pilot processing plant.

The prominent multinational minerals enterprise Imerys SA bought an 80% stake of Imerys British Lithium in June 2023. The partnership leverages Imerys' extensive mining expertise, substantial land holdings, and infrastructure with Imerys British Lithium's cutting-edge technology and advanced pilot plant. Together Imerys Imerys British Lithium proposes the world’s first integrated quarry, beneficiation plant, and refinery to produce 20,800 tonnes per annum (TPA) of battery grade lithium carbonate. Projected production would be sufficient to supply 500,000 electric vehicles each year—addressing roughly a third of Britian’s anticipated battery demand by 2035.


Andrew Smith, CEO of Imerys British Lithium summed up: “We are at a very exciting stage of our project. Since announcing our joint venture with Imerys back in June, we have been working incredibly hard on both integration and submitting pre-planning applications for our full-scale plant. Supportive visits from the UK government are essential in helping us to achieve our target of being operational this decade.”


Cornish Lithium

After enjoying teas, coffees, and Cornish pasties with the associates of Imerys British Lithium, the delegation moved on to visit another lithium project in the Southwest. Driving through the verdant Cornish countryside, the group arrived at Cornish Lithium’s Trelavour Project near St Dennis.


The Trelavour Hard Rock Project is situated in an existing china clay pit, in close proximity to their TreLith processing site which benefits from excellent logistics and infrastructure, including power, rail, road and access to port facilities. Cornish Lithium plans to use Lepidico’s low-carbon processing technology to produce battery-grade lithium hydroxide at the TreLith site. Construction of a demonstration plant is underway with commercial scale production planned to commence in early 2027.


Officials from HM Treasury and the DBT were able to see another example of a critical mineral project in the Southwest that has developed capacities to both mine and process their minerals in the same place. Projects like these would generate hundreds of local jobs, reduce the country’s reliance on imports, and strengthen the UK’s security of supply for Net Zero.

Jeremy Wrathall (CEO) and David Moseley (Process Manager) explain their lithium extraction process to the group.

The delegation then travelled to Cornish Lithium’s project in United Downs, one of several Lithium in Geothermal Waters projects they operate in the Southwest. Mike Round (Head of Geothermal Lithium) and Christine Jay (Office Manager) greeted the delegation, and Mike delivered a presentation and site tour explaining how lithium-enriched groundwaters circulate naturally and extensively beneath Cornwall. These waters can be accessed by drilling boreholes through permeable geological features to depths of 1-2 kilometres. Once the waters are pumped to the surface, lithium can be efficiently extracted using Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology, and the heat of the geothermal waters can also be extracted to provide low-carbon heating for local industry and housing.

Cornish Lithium has drilled 4 research boreholes to date: two at United Downs, and one at Twelveheads, with a fourth being drilled at Blackwater. These kinds of projects demonstrate how the UK is spearheading responsible extraction of lithium in a way that is low-impact and low-water usage.


Cornish Metals

The final stop on the Southwest tour was the iconic South Crofty mine in Pool, Cornwall. Located in the historic Central Mining District of Cornwall, South Crofty is an ancient mine that has seen production for over 400 years. South Crofty is the highest-grade tin deposit in the world that is not currently being mined. The project could meet all the UK’s tin needs for 2050, and has the potential to be a long-life operation lasting more than 20 years.


Currently owned and operated by the mineral exploration and development company Cornish Metals, the South Crofty Project is undergoing a Feasibility Study and has recently completed construction of a water treatment to dewater the mine. The Company hopes to see tin production officially commence before the end of 2026.


Richard Williams and Owen Mihalop lead the group on a tour of South Crofty’s new water treatment plant.

DBT and HM Treasury officials were welcomed by Richard Williams (Chief Executive Officer & Director) and Owen Mihalop (Chief Operating Officer) with refreshments and a lunch of local sandwiches and Cornish pasties. The delegation was also joined by Ellie Inglis-Woolcock and Tim Warne from Cornwall Council, as well as Dr Eva Marquis and Professor Frances Wall from the Camborne School of Mines (CSM).


CSM is the world-class geoscience and mining institution of the University of Exeter. It undertakes research and education in fundamental and applied aspects of mining and geoscience, including topics that are crucial to addressing the world’s most pressing environmental and supply chain challenges. The CSM’s courses range from geology and environmental geoscience through to mineral engineering and mineral processing. In 2020, their Mining Engineering undergraduate degree program intake was 'paused' for the first time since it had been offered, and unfortunately CSM was the last institution to offer this course in the UK. Thankfully the Mining Engineering program has resumed this year as a degree apprenticeship-- a first step to rebuilding a robust and attractive offering for students. The concern and discourse it sparked about the UK’s diminishing talent pipeline is another important issue the UK Government should consider.


After a presentation on the history of the mine, the strategic importance of tin, and the progress of the project, Richard and Owen led the group on a tour of the mine’s operating facilities, including their impressive water treatment plant and ongoing renovations on the New Cooks Kitchen Shaft.


Conclusion


Critical minerals are the building blocks of our modern and future green economy. Tungsten, tin, and lithium are all valuable resources needed to ensure the UK achieves Green Industrial ambitions and binding Net Zero commitments.


Tin, for example, is the ‘glue’ to all things electronic, and is therefore critical for the UK’s energy transition and the electrification of its economy. But at the moment, approximately 75% of tin mined globally comes from Myanmar, China and Indonesia, raising concerns over environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and security of supply. Lithium is mainly extracted within the ‘Lithium Triangle’ of South America (Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile), and 60% of its global supply is then processed in China. Tungsten supply chains are even more heavily monopolised, with China controlling over 85% of the supply chain.


If the UK is to achieve Net Zero, it must do so responsibly, and in a way that strengthens the national economy and national security. Companies such as Tungsten West, Cornwall Resources, Imerys British Lithium, Cornish Lithium, and Cornish Metals could generate hundreds of direct jobs, and support thousands more across an extensive supply chain. Imerys British Lithium’s undertaking, for instance, estimates an anticipated corporate tax contribution exceeding £1.5 billion, and would support a payroll exceeding £10 million annually. These numbers are even more significant for communities like Redmoor, where economic opportunities and levelling-up is needed.


The world of private investment is shifting, prioritising and valuing projects that demonstrate strong ESG credentials. The UK has a historically significant opportunity here to develop an alternative critical mineral supply chain that champions resilience, responsible sourcing, transparency, and domestic growth. With the UK’s allies already mobilising their resources to join the critical minerals race, the UK must act fast, or lose out on this most historic opportunity.


The UK’s 2022 Critical Minerals Strategy noted that, without Government support, the UK will lose the chance to build a resilient, domestic critical minerals supply chain that would “support British industries of the future, deliver on our energy transition, and protect our national security”. UK businesses will play a key part in realising this vision— but they need Government’s help to create the optimal regulatory and investment landscape to achieve this.


Thank you to officials from the DBT and Treasury for visiting the Southwest. Thank you to Tungsten West, Cornwall Resources, Imerys British Lithium, Cornish Lithium, and Cornish Metals for hosting, and to Nick Hilton from ERM for accompanying the delegation. Thank you to Cherilyn Mackrory MP, MP for Truro and Falmouth, and her Chief of Staff Ruth Jury, who also visited Cornish Lithium and Cornish Metals. Thank you to Dr Eva Marquis and Professor Frances Wall, who elevated discussions with their academic insights. Last but not least, thank you to Sue Penaluna, Ellie Inglis-Woolcock, and Tim Warne from Devon and Cornwall Councils for joining the site visits and offering their time and expertise.


Article written by Eileen Maes, Communications Associate, Critical Minerals Association (UK)

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