With its golf course and award-winning museum housed in a former nuclear bunker, the tranquil Highland tourism hub of Gairloch would seem an unusual epicentre for Britain’s efforts to obtain the raw minerals it needs for the transition to a green energy future.
But that prospect was held out last week when Galantas, a Canadian mining company which already operates a gold mine in Northern Ireland, announced the results of test drilling carried out in recent weeks in the hills surrounding Gairloch.
The firm, which in January paid some £347,000 to acquire the mining and exploration rights for a 217 square-kilometre stretch of Wester Ross known as the Gairloch Project, said it had found quantities of cobalt and vanadium – two of the metals listed on the Government’s list of “critical minerals” required to produce technologies from electric vehicles to wind turbines to giant grid storage batteries.
Mario Stifano, chief executive of Galantas, declared the discoveries, which also included deposits of a gold, silver, copper, titanium and zinc, to be a “fantastic result”, adding: “The discovery of new critical materials is a major development for the project.” The company said it would carry out further exploration this summer before deciding on how to proceed.
The announcement coincides with a crucial moment in Britain’s attempts to keep pace in a fierce global race to secure the raw minerals, infrastructure and supply chains that will sustain a low-carbon economy – and allow the UK to push back against Chinese dominance in an area regarded as a fulcrum in the geo-politics of the 21st century.
It is an eco “gold rush” which in the UK stretches from the metal-rich surroundings of Gairloch to the clay pits and former tin mines of Cornwall to the former Royal Ordnance munitions plant site in Somerset which it was this week announced will host Tata Group’s £4bn new battery “gigafactory” – the second largest in Europe.
The quantity of raw materials required to power Britain’s green economy is daunting. According to the Faraday Institution, the UK’s independent body for research into battery technology, by 2040 Britain will need 175,000 tonnes per annum of nickel, some 130,000 tonnes of refined lithium and 25,000 tonnes of cobalt. Across the planet, it is estimated that raw materials worth some £4.6trn will need to be sourced in the coming decades to power the shift to cleaner energy, with China currently refining anywhere between half and nearly all of key minerals including lithium, cobalt and manganese.
And the clock is ticking. The announcement of Land Rover-owner Tata’s gigafactory, which will provide about 40 per cent of the battery-making capacity needed by the UK by 2030, has broadly put the UK back on track to meet its goals for the end of the decade. But the Faraday Institution estimates that the country will need at least ten gigafactories by 2040 (it currently has just one small facility, with two others on their way) and is entering a crucial period in which plans and investments for new plants will need to be signed off at pace for Britain to avoid irretrievably losing ground to America, China and the EU.
Stephen Gifford, the Faraday Institution’s chief economist, told i: “It is a make or break period. We need to be seeing investment in a further two or three gigafactory locations within the next two or three years. The Tata investment is very welcome but we have no room to be complacent.
“China is very dominant in terms of refining of critical minerals and we have to develop our own supply chain. It’s sensible to have a diverse supply. Much of the material we need is going to come from places like South America and Australia. But there is also a strong argument for the UK to produce or mine some of these materials.”
It is estimated that Cornwall’s nascent lithium industry could meet around a quarter of future UK demand from onging projects to extract the metal, a crucial component in electric vehicle batteries, by methods ranging from removing it from water pumped below ground to produce geothermal energy to extracting it from china clay. Across the border in Devon, efforts are ongoing to restart production of tin and tungsten at a mine near Plymouth.
A study earlier this year by the British Geological Survey (BGS) pinpointed eight areas of the UK – from Northern Ireland and Wales to Wester Ross and Cornwall – which have the right geology to yield 17 of the 18 metals and minerals identified as critical to economic stability. Among the metals discovered were traces of gallium and germanium, two “rare earth” minerals vital in microchip production which were last month made the subject of export controls from China – the producer of 60 per cent of global supplies.
The BGS analysis followed the Government’s release last year of a critical minerals strategy committing to maximising domestic production and rebuilding skills in mining.
The problem is that some in the minerals industry feel progress in Britain is glacial compared to its competitors. Germany announced last month that it has set aside €1bn (£900m) to support mining of critical minerals, while America is providing subsidies of nearly $400bn (£310bn) via the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to boost clean technologies.
The internationally renowned Camborne School of Mines, part of the University of Exeter, paused new admissions to its undergraduate mining engineering course for two years after a fall in demand for places, although new apprenticeship and part-time degrees are being offered from this September.
Sally Norcross-Webb, founder and chief executive of Cornish Tin, one of three companies with plans to extract lithium or tin from the rock beds of the South West, said progress such as the Tata gigafactory was to be welcomed but ministers were not as yet seizing the opportunity to secure domestic supplies of these vital materials. She told i: There is an even bigger opportunity here to build a robust supply chain, if the Government has the foresight to help make it happen. There is currently no commercial production of the critical minerals tin or lithium in the UK – it’s all imported. China dominates global mineral production and owns significant stakes in mining companies worldwide, for example in Australia. If we rely 100% on imported critical minerals, as we do now, then UK supply chains will become increasingly fragile.”
Another senior figure in one of Cornwall’s crop of new mining companies added: “The IRA has lit a fire under this issue. All of our rivals are investing furiously in security of supply but I don’t detect the same level of urgency here. Great as the Tata announcement is, we need a conveyor belt of gigafactories. We need sustainable extraction and we need the graduates to do it. The approach so far has been too piecemeal.”
The Department for Business and Trade said it was taking action to “ensure the resilience of critical mineral supply chains”, including the formation earlier this year of a new independent body to investigate vulnerabilities and opportunites for British industry in sourcing raw materials. Britain has also signed deals with South Africa, Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia and Saudi Arabia to secure mineral supplies.
Experts argue that even if mining goes ahead in far-flung corners of the UK from Gairloch to Omagh, a British critical minerals industry risks seeing any resulting raw materials simply being shipped abroad without a beefed-up processing sector capable of refining ores into usable materials.
In Humberside, a pioneering £145m plant capable of processing the raw materials needed for rare earth magnets, used in technology such as wind turbines and electric vehicles, had been due to start production by the end of this year. That date has now slipped to 2025, although its owners, Pensana, announced in April that they had secured a longterm deal to sell 25 per cent of production to Japan.
At the same time, some suggest Britain faces a “moral” responsibility to do what it can to share the physical burden of mineral extraction, even if that is to risk consternation among communities which find themselves living next to a new generation of British mines.
Professor Gawen Jenkin, a Cornish native who heads Leicester University’s Centre for Sustainable Resource Extraction, said new green solvents – based on materials including vitamin B4 – offer a more sustainable way of extracting minerals and mining companies are even seeking a “holy grail” of being able to pump state-of-the-art liquid solutions into seams to dissolve and remove metals without the need for direct mining.
He said: “There is a strong moral case for a country like the UK to take on some of the burden of producing the huge resources that we need for the green revolution. If done well, mining could benefit the national and local economies and we would not be off-shoring our carbon footprint. Mining technology is very different from the last time we were extracting large amounts of minerals in Britain 150 or 200 years ago.”