The future of UK mining

Materials World magazine
27 Nov 2018

Khai Trung Le looks at the most promising new lithium, tin, gold, and coal mines in the UK.

The Industrial Revolution was more than a century-and-a-half ago. The UK’s landscape is no longer defined by the mining industry, as depleted resources and a shift away from coal meant moving away from gargantuan open pits and strongly defined mining communities.

Regardless, there are around 2,000 mines and quarries in the UK. This won’t be of much surprise to our informed readers, but with the public image of mining still dominated by the heritage of coal, it can be tough to bear in mind that technological advances, changes in mineral demand, and a greater commitment to environmentalism has allowed smaller scale operations to flourish.

The insular celtic

One of the most prolific new mining projects in the UK combines technological innovation with one of the most demanded minerals, lithium. Cornish Lithium has employed satellite imagery to target brines in Cornwall for extraction (see Materials World, March 2018, page 17), and new techniques and technologies are expected to enable highly efficient extraction processes, with Cornish Lithium anticipating a yield of up to 99.9% purity. The first exploration hole was expected to be drilled by the end of 2018, and Cornish Lithium hopes to begin production by 2023.

Lithium is not Cornwall’s only treasure. Tin has been one of the region’s most prolific promises, having been mined in the region since the Middle Ages. At its peak, tin was mined in 400 sites across Cornwall until the Great Tin Crash of 1985 brought prices, and many mines, to collapse. The South Crofty mine persisted for 14 more years, until it was eventually closed and left to flood in 1998. However, the resurgence in the price of tin – around £15,000/t at the time of writing – led Strongbow Exploration to purchase South Crofty in 2016 in the hopes of making the site operational again in 2020. The site has an official mine life of eight years, able to produce around 1,000t of tin from the lower levels daily, although Strongbow believes it could continue past 2028.

Old money

Lithium may represent the future, but gold remains the immutable measure of opulence. Scotsgold held the first ever auction for gold mined and processed in Scotland in 2016, following success at its Cononish mine, located in the Highlands. Cononish has an ore reserve of around 555,000t, and the company is looking to raise £2.65m to begin full-scale operation
at the site. Throughout 2018, Scotsgold has revised plans for the Cononish site to improve its environmental credentials. Gold processing is planned to take place on-site using gravity and flotation,
rather than cyanide and mercury, which would be harmful in the event of a leak.

Wales is also pursuing the glitter of gold, with Alba Mineral Resources having 90% ownership of the Clogau project, located in the Dolgellau gold belt. Clogau was closed in 1998, but Alba believes it will find unworked veins in the area. George Frangeskides, Executive Chairman of Alba, said, ‘The opportunity presented by this project is pretty unique – high grade gold in the heart of the UK, the fact that Welsh gold attracts a significant premium over spot rates, the historic connections of Welsh gold with the heritage of the UK, the potential for finding more gold in the vastly underexplored ground – all of these factors make a strong case for investment.’

King coal

The tumultuous legacy of coal continues to be the dominant face of UK mining. The last UK deep pit coal mine was closed in 2015, and the UK and Europe exports around 45 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) of coking coal. But there are some still invested in the UK’s resources. West Cumbria Mining began screening an area in Whitehaven in 2014, observing seams of coking coal running beneath the area and heading out to sea. West Cumbria Mining’s mine site, to be known as Woodhouse Colliery, will occupy the former Marchon industrial site, hoping to take advantage of the existing Sandwith Anhydrite mine drift tunnels.

Woodhouse Colliery will use run-out and pocket extraction, and is expected to begin production in 2019, and is estimated to produce around 3.2Mtpa.

While Cumbria seeks its fortune in coal mining, Wales, which currently operates two major opencast operations – Ffos y Fran and East Pit – is looking to cast it aside. New planning rules drafted by the Welsh government in October 2018 would only permit
future coal mining applications under ‘wholly exceptional circumstances’.

The policy draft notes that ‘proposals for opencast, deep-mine development or colliert spoil disposal should not be permitted […] Should, in wholly exceptional circumstances, proposals be put forward they would clearly need to demonstrate why they are needed in the context of climate change emissions reductions targets and for reasons of national energy security’.

The proposed policy would only affect new applications, while current licences would be allowed to continue. But the decision has naturally come under criticism by some within the coal industry, including Tyrone O’Sullivan, Chairman of Tower Colliery, which is in the process of restoring its opencast site in Hirwaun. He described the decision as ‘sacrificing’ coal, and further commented, ‘In 25 years’ time, unless something special is found, we will be developing coal again because the world has got to have energy.’

Others, including Will Watson, Chief Executive of Celtic Energy, which currently operates a number of sites in Wales, were unsurprised by the move. Watson said, ‘The proposed guidance is the next step in the UK and Welsh governments’ pursuit of energy decarbonisation and is not unexpected […] While we have argued unsuccessfully in the past that the reduction in energy generation from coal is being pursued too quickly, we are now moving our focus away from coal extraction to area regeneration projects post-coaling.’