Cornish miners hope to profit from the shift to electric cars
IN THE MIDDLE of the 19th century copper-miners at Wheal Clifford, now the site of picturesque ruins not far from Redruth in Cornwall, chanced upon waters rich with lithium. At the time there was no commercial use for the metal. The underground springs were a nuisance they had to work round. These days lithium is an essential component of the batteries that drive electric cars, and deposits across Cornwall are attracting prospectors. Locals hope for a revival of the county’s mining industry, two decades after its last metal mine closed.
Two companies with different approaches are investing. Cornish Lithium plans to extract the metal from brine it will retrieve by drilling wells. It is building a pilot plant a short walk from Wheal Clifford that will be ready within 18 months, says Jeremy Wrathall, its boss. British Lithium, a competitor, says it will get its product by crunching up rocks from a quarry it wants to dig outside St Austell. Roderick Smith, the company’s chairman, says that hole will be “big but not gigantic”, in an area that has already been scarred by china-clay works. Both teams talk of starting commercial production in three to five years.
Global demand for lithium is expected to increase five-fold in the next 15 years, as petrol and diesel cars give way to electric ones. At present most of it comes from Chile, Argentina and Australia. A lot of it must pass through China for processing. Most analysts agree that there will eventually be enough to go round. But carmakers worry that there will be bottlenecks as production expands, and are keen to see a more diverse bunch of suppliers, says Andy Leyland of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a consultancy. Carmakers are also eager to bring down the number of miles that raw materials must travel. They worry that weak environmental standards in some lithium-producing countries will cause them problems down the line.
Cornwall’s lithium companies claim that their projects can boost British carmaking. In a report published in March the Faraday Institution, a government-funded research outfit, warned that more than 100,000 jobs could be lost by 2040 if Britain’s carmakers fail to bag the talent and investment needed to switch from making old-fashioned cars to electric ones. It says that attracting battery-makers is the most important task. Stephen Gifford, of the Faraday Institution, thinks battery firms would find Britain a slightly more tempting place to plonk their factories if they knew they could secure “maybe one-quarter or one-fifth” of their lithium from within the country’s borders. British Lithium says it hopes its quarry will be able to produce enough lithium annually to make 350,000 electric vehicles.
The past two decades have seen no shortage of plans to exploit Cornwall’s various remaining minerals. So far they have all hit the rocks. Some of the people involved in the sector have proved more skilled at promotion than at getting useful stuff out of the ground, says Kip Jeffrey of Camborne School of Mines (now part of Exeter University). But he thinks the present contenders look more adept. They have done a good job of consolidating mineral licences and they offer newer technologies. They also enjoy much local support. Kim Conchie of the local chamber of commerce says the Cornish have never felt as fondly of tourism as they do of farming, fishing and mining. Those, he explains, are “the things we sing about”.■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Wheels within wheals"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/10/03/cornish-miners-hope-to-profit-from-the-shift-to-electric-cars
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