Could Lithium Be The New Tin For Cornish Mining

Discovered long ago, Lithium has remained underground in Cornwall with no apparent use. Is now the time to start mining?

Anyone visiting Cornwall from abroad or even from the north of Britain may not be aware of it’s mining heritage. Apart from a few chimney stacks and the odd museum, there is not much left to show for what was once the most important tin and copper producer in the world. With no mines left operating, could Lithium help revive the old industry and bring prosperity to one of the poorest counties in the UK?

Image for post
Photo by Carter Moorse on Unsplash

What exactly is Lithium?

Lithium (Li) is a silvery white, soft, alkali metal, that is very light. It is highly reactive, flammable and must be stored carefully. It is usually found in compounds underground, but is also present in sea water. The element was first detected in 1817, but it was not discovered in Cornwall until 1864, in hot springs deep inside tin mines. It has been used for medicinal purposes, lubricants, aircraft alloys and a variety of other industries, but since the 1990s Lithium has been associated with batteries. Initially used for small electronic devices such as cameras, phones and laptops, the technology is now being incorporated into electric car batteries and that is why it has become such an important resource today. At present there are no Lithium mines in the UK, so it has to be imported from places like Australia, Chile and China, but this could all change.

Where is the Lithium in Cornwall?

One of the main problems faced by the tin and copper miners in the past, was how to get rid of the water. As they dug deeper and deeper, the worse it became. But these warm briny waters could now prove to be useful. Unlike Chile or Bolivia, Cornwall is not known for it’s salt lakes, but it does have hot rocks and hot springs deep underground. As far back as the 1970s, Cornwall was at the forefront of hot rock projects, and recently the UK’s first lido to be heated by geothermal energy opened in Penzance. Now it is hoped that these hot brine spring waters can be brought to the surface, and processed for Lithium. Also, as the water will be hot, there are plans to use the heat to reduce production costs. Initial surveys have taken place around the traditional mining areas of Camborne and Redruth, but a separate project is looking into the possibility of quarrying for Lithium from granite, and this is based in the area around St Austell.

Will it be good for Cornwall?

Apart from the china clay (kaolin) industry, mining is non existent in Cornwall today. Once known for tin, copper, arsenic, zinc and even silver mining, the region now has little industry, with most jobs provided by tourism, farming and fishing. Mining used to employ thousands of people, but as competition grew and the price of tin fell, slowly the mines were shut down. The last mine closed in 1998 at South Crofty. If Lithium mining proves viable, it could be a great boost to the region, as Cornwall is one of the poorest counties in Britain. Jobs are particularly scarce in the old mining areas around Camborne and Redruth, so Lithium could really make a difference. If the industry can provide jobs for locals and at the same time ensure that the environmental impact is minimised, Lithium mining will be welcomed by the Cornish.

I am a Cornish design engineer who likes writing, reading, photography, technology, nature, history, cars, aeroplanes, motorbikes and all things Cornish.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store