The hills and woods around the town of Redruth are dotted with reminders of Cornwall’s proud mining history – lovely old engine houses, terraces of workers’ cottages, memorials and statues.
So rich were the reserves of tin and copper in the region that one site near the village of Gwennap was once nicknamed “the richest square mile on Earth”.
Many decades on from that heyday, a renaissance in mining, or mineral extraction as its modern practitioners prefer to call it, may be taking place.
On Thursday, a Cornish-based company announced that it had found lithium – a component in electric car batteries – of a “globally significant” grade just north of Redruth.
The company said the lithium in hot salty springs deep underground had the potential to turn Cornwall into the UK’s hub for battery materials and create hundreds of jobs. It even said there could be enough lithium in Cornwall to meet all the UK’s demand if and when the country moves from fossil fuel vehicles to electric ones.
The company, Cornish Lithium, believes that commercial production could start within three to five years, and claims the find could lead to a string of battery plants being built in the far south-west of England.
In Redruth, a town made solidly wealthy by mining but which has declined in recent years and has pockets of severe deprivation, the announcement was greeted with cautious optimism.
Deborah Reeve, the town’s mayor, said Cornish Lithium’s discovery could be a huge boost. “It would be brilliant, not just for this town, but for the whole of Cornwall,” she said. Reeve has taken a close interest in goings-on at the company. “I’m amazed at their persistence, commitment and enthusiasm. They are so sure it will work. Let’s hope it will.”
Lee Collins, a shopkeeper who is something of a hero in Redruth for saving the town centre greengrocer this summer, said it would be wonderful if the project brought more jobs for young people. “I’d hope that the money would stay in Cornwall and not be pulled out of the county.”
Paul Bray, a former captain at the South Crofty tin mine, agreed: “Anything that can bring in extra jobs is great.”
But the people of Redruth make it clear this is not just about money. Mining is part of the place’s identity. Cornwall has a long and proud mining history stretching back to the early bronze age. Reserves of copper, tin, zinc, silver and arsenic have all been exploited for centuries.
As well as making fortunes for mine owners, the industry has had a profound effect on the cultural life and social history of the far south-west of Britain. For one thing, it gave the world the Cornish pasty – originally a wholesome and practical lunch for miners – and was a backdrop for Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, which were turned into television hits in the 1970s and again more recently. “I think to the Cornish people mining is very important – it’s their history, their heritage,” said Bray.
In a statement on Thursday, the company said: “Initial results indicate some of the world’s highest grades of lithium and best overall chemical qualities encountered in published records for geothermal waters anywhere in the world.”
The company pointed out that the hot brine the lithium is found in can also be used to create power. “The same water can be used to generate zero-carbon electrical power and heat,” it said. “As such, these waters are rapidly becoming recognised as the ultimate ethical source of lithium.”
Jeremy Wrathall, CEO and founder of Cornish Lithium, said the find could kickstart a renaissance for Cornwall’s traditional industry. “We think it’s the beginning of a new chapter for Cornwall and the UK,” he said.” It will bring jobs. It will bring prosperity to Cornwall. Hopefully, Cornwall will become the battery materials hub for the UK.”
There is, potentially, a lot of the metal. The granite in which the lithium-rich waters are found stretches from the Isles of Scilly 25 miles off the Cornish coast to Dartmoor in Devon.
Wrathall said that when the test results came back, his team could not believe “the exceptionally high” grades of lithium. They contacted a second lab to double-check, and the results that came back revealed even higher grades.
Cornish Lithium is collaborating with a company called Geothermal Engineering, which is working on the production of power and heat from the hot granite rocks beneath Cornwall. Funding has been provided by the UK government’s Getting Building Fund to build a £4m pilot lithium extraction plant at United Downs.
Another four potential spots on top of the pilot site have already been pinpointed, although he said there may be many more. Each plant could lead to the creation of up to 50 jobs.
Frances Wall, professor of applied mineralogy at the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, was excited about the announcement. “Our students tend to have to leave Cornwall,” she said. The school’s students have, at last count, travelled to 50 different countries. “Projects like this one will help keep some of them here.”