The new soft silver

Photo shows a former tin mine on the Cornish cliffs.

THE rugged, peninsular county of Cornwall, UK, where I was born at its most southwestern extremity, abounded in the 18th and 19th centuries with tin and copper mines on an industrial scale. The last tin mine at South Crofty shut down in 1998, while the one nearest to my home, Geevor mine, closed in 1990. In that year, on that very day, as I drove past Geevor, I wept tears to see the miners leaving their lifelong place of work.

Over the years, I have taken many Malaysian friends from Sabah and Sarawak to the sites of these former mines. By the end of the 19th century, these deep shaft, underground tin mines, tunnelling out for hundreds of metres under the sea, closed as they were no longer economically viable. Why? The answer lay in the development of alluvial surface mining of tin in another peninsula: Peninsular Malaysia and particularly in the Kinta Valley, centred on Ipoh in 1883.

The tin in Cornwall was extracted as solid rock ore from metamorphic rocks on the edges of the granitic moorlands. In Malaysia, through deep-seated tropical weathering, the tin was washed out of the rocks to be deposited in riverbeds for dredging. In 1885, Malaysia was the leading country in the world for tin production. The tin capital of Europe, Cornwall, with its former 2,000 tin mines, was no more, for trading collapsed. Trading from here to Europe can be traced back to Phoenician Greek times, very, very many centuries ago and well before Julius Caesar invaded Britain with his Roman army.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of unemployed Cornish miners migrated to other deep mining areas of today’s Commonwealth countries. Southern Australia and South Africa were their main choices. Others opted for California. There, they worked underground in gold or diamond mines in whatever jobs they could find in mining operations, thus bringing their skills to the rock face.

There is still an old saying in Cornwall that, “Wherever you are in the world, at the bottom of a pit, you’ll find a ‘Cousin Jack’” I was reminded about this expression when returning to London recently from a visit to Borneo. At the airport, waiting for the return of my luggage at a conveyor belt, I casually talked to another passenger who came from North Wales. He was working in Australian mines and said that he had met many a ‘Cousin Jack’ over the years there. “It’s a small world,” I replied.

 

New ‘gold’?

At airports all computers and mobile phones must be declared in hand luggage and all baggage screened. Security personnel are not only checking for illegal drugs, weapons, and potential bomb devices but also upon the quantities of a certain metal that can create fire hazards if stored in an aircraft hold. The answer is simply Lithium. This soft silver and white alkaline element is found with other minerals in igneous related rocks or in brine pools. It is the lightest chemical element and the lightest of metals, easily sliced with a knife and with such low density it can float on salt water.

Lithium was first discovered in 1817, as an element, by a Swedish chemist Johann Arfredson in the mineral petalite. This mineral is located in pegmatite granites as well as in the sea and in salt lakes in the form of lithium chloride (brine). In the early 1820s, the distinguished Cornish chemist Sir Humphry Davy used electrolysis on lithium oxide to produce the metal. Today there is an explosive growth in the demand for lithium which, on trading-markets, almost equals gold in price for, in the last 10 years, a tonne of lithium has doubled in price.

This year, almost 1 per cent of vehicles run on electricity and use 50 per cent of the world’s lithium-ion battery supplies. Within the next two years, batteries will account for 60 per cent of lithium demands. Cost efficiencies in lithium battery production and kilowatt hours of running time have increased enormously since the mid-1990s.

 

Lithium products

Today, of the world’s total production of lithium, 40 per cent is used in batteries, 30 per cent in ceramic and glass industries, 8 per cent in lubricating greases – especially for aircraft, and 10 per cent in anti-depressant medicines. In my household, my hearing aid, smoke detector, laptop computers, and mobile phones all contain lithium-ion batteries. Several of my neighbours’ houses with south facing roofs have installed solar panels with lithium batteries attached in which to store and release energy in times of power cuts. A summer’s heatwave in the UK this year saw electricity surges as fans and air conditioning systems were switched on, with inevitable power cuts. I only wish my roof was facing in the right direction.

 

Major lithium producers

This year, in terms of actual production, Australia tops the list followed by Chile and Argentina with China in hot pursuit. Several countries, including the USA, do not declare, for security reasons, the actual annual amounts of this element they produce. Over 50 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves are located in ‘The Lithium Triangle’ of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. In Chile’s Atacama Desert lies the largest lithium mine in the world where lithium salts are dried out in sun from huge lakes of brine. Recent drillings in Peru have revealed large deposits but are they economically viable in terms of production costs? Investors seem to think so.

 

Flames relit in miner’s safety lamps

Sir Humphry Davy is accredited as the inventor of the Davy lamp, a handheld lamp that miners could take underground for illumination even where mine gases existed. Today, it is thought that Cornwall is the only county in the UK to hold viable deposits of lithium, which could self-sustain British manufacturers for years to come. The worldwide demand for this metal is likely to rise two to threefold in the next eight years.

Lithium is not a new discovery in Cornwall, for in the 19th century mining records revealed underground springs containing lithium salts. However, there was no immediate market for this alkaline metal.

With the aid of satellite technology, images of huge swathes of a country can be examined by geologists through orbiting satellite-images. Areas of profitable spots of lithium sources can be easily spotted and other minerals identified before test drilling begins. From the satellites, hot liquid spots can be identified, where reactions with the granitic rocks produce lithium-bearing salts in solution. From space, local vegetation colourations can be traced to lithium in subterranean deposits.

 

Renaissance of tin, rediscovery of lithium

I just wonder whether in Perak’s Kinta Valley, where alluvial deposits of tin were once dredged out, there are unexplored deposits of lithium salts in the river silt. Alluvial tin was the result of rainwater washing out tin from tropical, deeply-weathered granite. If lithium could be extracted there on an economically viable scale, it would prove to be a huge boost to Malaysia’s very fast growing electronics and electrical industries.

As mentioned earlier, tin is now again becoming a more expensive metal and thus interest has renewed in the reopening of the underground mines in Cornwall, where that metal ore together with lithium salts could both be extracted. Already exploratory drilling has taken place in former mines in East Cornwall as a joint venture between UK and Australian mining companies.

A Canadian company is hoping to ‘float’ the former South Crofty tin mine, in West Cornwall, on the London Stock Exchange anytime now. If this is successful amongst potential investors, mining operations will restart in 2021. Adapting an old American expression, I would even go as far as to say, “There’s tin and lithium in them old hills!”

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