- By Joshua Nevett
- BBC policy
Overlooking a shopping street in a former mining centre, the statue of a miner reminds Cornwall of its industrial past.
In this part of South West England, the mining industry was once an economic powerhouse and in recent years has made a tentative comeback.
A new generation of miners hope the natural resources that put Cornwall on the map will once again bring wealth to the county.
This time, miners are using cutting-edge technology to get their hands on lithium – a metal used to make batteries for the everyday electronics we all rely on, from laptops to smartphones.
These lithium-ion batteries also power electric cars that will be crucial in reducing carbon emissions and limiting the worst effects of climate change.
The mining industry has the potential to revitalize the tourism-dependent economy of Cornwall, where some areas are among the most deprived in England.
But while the mining renaissance excites much of Cornwall, there is uncertainty over whether lithium really will be the golden ticket the region has long been waiting for – benefiting people in ways that does not harm the environment while bringing back well-paying mining jobs.
The company aims to start production by 2026 and expects to extract about 10,000 tonnes of lithium each year. This represents around 12.5% of the 80,000 tonnes the UK is expected to need per year by 2030.
They will be competing with rival British Lithium, which is seeking to extract the metal from an open-pit mine in St Austell.
Estimates of the market value of the lithium industry vary, with one report predicting global revenues of nearly $19bn (£15bn) by 2030.
While lithium is expected to be in demand worldwide for years to come, the economic price on offer is enticing.
Overall, “the community is pretty supportive,” says Frances Wall, professor of applied mineralogy at Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall.
Excitement is building, she says, but adds “if you go to individual areas, there are definitely people who are concerned.”
They often point to the environmental record of some lithium mining operations in South America and worry that it could be repeated in Cornwall.
“It needs to be done as cleanly as possible,” says Holly Whitelaw, director of the Cornwall Climate Action Network.
She says “some overseas lithium mining is awful” and that UK companies have an opportunity to set better standards globally.
And Cornish Lithium founder Jeremy Wrathall thinks it can.
He says his company uses methods that are more environmentally friendly than those elsewhere.
For example, one technique involves pumping hot brine from underground and removing the lithium, in a process he likens to a large version of a Brita water filter.
Mr Wrathall, a former investment banker, says there is enthusiasm for what his company is doing because of Cornwall’s long mining history.
“We recognize that this could bring huge economic benefits and if we don’t, if nothing happens, the outlook is bleak for Cornwall,” he says.
Local climate activist Nichola Andersen is skeptical and says she knows “a lot of people around the Cornish Lithium project who are against it”.
“I’m very suspicious of him, given Cornwall’s corporate history,” she says.
“Anyone exploiting the resources here is just trying to carve out their own nest.
“This is just another example of people extracting value from Cornwall. The money goes out of Cornwall and never comes back.”
Loveday Jenkin, Mebyon Kernow member of Cornwall Council, is more optimistic. She welcomes the prospect of high quality jobs, in keeping with Cornwall’s tradition of skilled engineering.
But she does not want to see the lithium extracted here exported abroad. She asked, “Why don’t we have a lithium battery factory in Cornwall?”
It’s a good question, and a tricky one for the UK.
Currently the UK has only one major battery factory in operation – China’s Envision factory in Sunderland. A second Envision factory is under construction, while a third – Britishvolt – is floundering after falling into administration earlier this year.
In the race to build these so-called gigafactories, the UK is lagging behind China, which reportedly has more than 100 active factories. Even in Western Europe, there are 38 operational or planned gigafactories, according to the Faraday institution.
Simon Moores, managing director of consultancy Benchmark Minerals, has his doubts.
He says the UK is losing the “global battery arms race” after “long hesitation on any kind of strategy on electric vehicles and lithium”.
Benchmark Minerals has calculated that the UK needs to spend around £100bn to launch a new electric vehicle industry – £20bn to set up new gigafactories and £80bn to build the chain of supply that feeds it.
Without this battery ecosystem, the future of the UK car industry hangs in the balance.
“As a Brit I am very concerned about this,” Mr Wrathall said. “But in terms of what we’re doing with Cornish Lithium, we’ll export it if there’s no car industry here. That would be a tragedy.”
Cornish Lithium has received government funding for its projects, including £2.9m for its geothermal lithium pilot plant near Redruth. The government says its critical minerals strategy highlights its progress in supporting lithium projects and battery manufacturing in the UK.
“From the tip of Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands, we are creating the conditions for the growth of essential mining businesses by providing financial support,” said a government spokesperson.
Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay Steve Double says some opportunities have been created thanks to government support.
“But due to the global economic situation, there have been challenges with that,” he says.
He agrees there is still a long way to go before the people of Cornwall can see the benefits of its white gold rush.
“If a gigafactory became possible, I would love to see that happen,” Mr. Double said.
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