Mining the UK

23 January 2018 (Last Updated January 23rd, 2018 10:56)

The days of deep coal mining may be largely gone for the UK, but small-scale, varied mines are ensuring the industry’s survival. In this interactive map, we spotlight some of these sustaining projects, including lithium mining in Cornwall, tin mining in Devon and gold mining in the Highlands.

Mining the UK
Fluorspar is now the main material produced in the Peak District. Credit: Courtesy of Evilbish

During the Industrial Revolution, the UK’s mining industry grew at a phenomenal rate as coal and iron fuelled growth. Today, depleted resources and the shift from coal have seriously reduced the size of activities. But while colossal open pits may now be a thing of the past, smaller scale operations in the UK are blazing a trail by finding more innovative ways of working.

There are around 2,000 mines and quarries in the UK which produce a vast range of materials. From the Highlands to Devon, its minerals industry supports tens of thousands of jobs and contributes billions of pounds to the economy.

Technological advances, changes in metal and mineral demand and a commitment to the landscapes in which they lie has allowed new mines to flourish and for many new projects to pop up.

Tin and tungsten from Devon

Hemerdon in Devon has the fourth biggest reserve of tungsten in the world. However, it has been left untapped for more than sixty years, following its closure in 1944. Several attempts to reopen the mine failed either because they couldn’t meet safety standards or were quashed by mineral prices. But in 2011, Australian-based mining company Wolf Minerals was granted planning permission and began work to get the Drakelands mine up and running again. Extraction of tungsten and tin kicked off in 2015, taking advantage of the pit’s total resource of 145.2 million tonnes (Mt).

Tungsten has become increasingly sought after in recent years, as it is used in a wide variety of applications, including in missiles, television tubes and as drill bits. Drakelands has an impressive capacity of greater than 3,000tpa tungsten concentrate, which is processed onsite. Each year it expects to produce 5,000t of processed tungsten and 1,000t of tin.

Lithium in Cornwall

As the desire for technologies has grown around the world, so too has the need for the metals and minerals to build them. Lithium is a prime example, with demand surging due to the success of the lithium-ion battery. As such, new sources of the mineral must be found, leading to a revaluation of Cornwall’s historic resource.

Cornish Lithium is looking to extract the mineral from brines located below hot springs in the south-west of the UK. New technologies allow for an incredibly efficient extraction process, capable of yielding a purity of up to 99.9%. Currently only at the exploration stage, the company has secured the funding for the first exploration holes, which will be drilled this year with hopes to begin production within the next five years.

Gold from Scotland

In 2016, Scotsgold held the first ever auction for gold mined and processed in Scotland. Nestled in the Highlands, its Cononish mine has an ore reserve of 555,000t. Following initial exploration works and reserve estimates, Scotsgold must now raise £2.65m to begin full-scale operations.

Scotsgold is currently amending its plans to ensure it uses the most efficient and environmentally friendly techniques when advancing to commercial-scale operations next year. The company is also in the process of redesigning its tailings. Gold processing will take place on-site using gravity and flotation, as opposed to cyanide or mercury techniques which can be harmful in the event of a leak, to ensure damage to the landscape is kept to a minimum whilst growing Scotland’s mining sector.

Polyhalite in Yorkshire

There have been numerous problems to overcome for Israel Chemicals (ICL) at its Boulby mine. Located on the north-east coast of the Yorkshire Moors, the mine is currently the only one in the world producing polyhalite, which when processed creates polysulphates that are used as fertiliser. Originally a potash mine, as reserves dwindled the company switched its sights to the more difficult mineral to extract.

Previously, polyhalite has been overlooked due to the challenges related to extraction. At ICL’s mine, workers were going through a hundred cutting heads a shift due to the material’s strength but following a redesign by the site engineers, this has been dramatically reduced and production has increased. The mine has now recorded its millionth tonne of polyhalite and ICL plans to increase production to three million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) of polyhalite by 2025.

Tin in Cornwall

Tin has been mined in Cornwall since 2,300 BC, with large-scale operations beginning in the 1600s. At its peak, there were 400 tin mines in Cornwall, but in 1985 the Great Tin Crash brought this to an end as prices plummeted. Despite this, the South Crofty tin mine survived until 1998, when it eventually shutdown and was left to flood.

However, Strongbow Exploration bought South Crofty mine in 2016 and the company plans to make  the site operational again by 2020. Predominantly, it is the price of tin, which currently lies around £15,200/ t, which has rekindled this interest. South Crofty has an official mine life of eight years, producing 1,000t a day from the lower levels of the existing mine, but already Strongbow believes the resource could continue well beyond this.

Fluorspar and lead in Derbyshire

Fluorspar is now the main material produced in the Peak District. Mining of the mineral, which is predominantly used in chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid and fluorocarbons, began in the 1920s and has continued ever since, being able to take advantage of the rich seams that run though the area. In 2012, British Fluorspar reopened the Cavendish Mill mines, which now produce 65,000t per annum of fluorspar.

Mineralisation of the site’s vertical veins is made up of fluorite, baryte and galena together with calcite and silica. British Fluorspar also excavates and processes the galena, or iron sulphide, making it the only iron producer left in Derbyshire.

Unlike historic mines throughout the Peak District, British Fluorspar is committed to the remediation of lands following use, resulting in 220 acres of land being restored. The company’s current activities utilise remote controlled scoop trucks and trackless mining in underground drift mines to help minimise the impact on the surrounding areas.

Barite in Perthshire

Oilfield services company M-I SWACO is planning to develop a barite mine at Duntanlich, near Aberfeldy in Perthshire, where production is expected to begin by the end of this year. The use of a selective mining technique will ensure there are no tailings generated by the project, but instead, waste rock will be used to backfill the underground caverns.

Barite production in Scotland is strategic, as it is used as a weighting ingredient in the drilling fluids used in oil and gas exploration. This is essential to offshore oil and gas operations in the North Sea, but the UK currently relies on limited production from M-I SWACO’s other mine at Foss, as well as imports. Duntanlich, once up and running, would provide 120,000tpa of barite  to help secure Britain’s supply for years to come.

Coal mining in Cumbria

In 2014, West Cumbria Mining set about screening an area near Whitehaven where it hopes to establish a new coal mine. Rich seams of coking coal run below this area and out under the sea. West Cumbria Mining hopes this coal could help minimise the 45Mtpa of coking coal currently imported by the UK and Europe.

The mine will sit on the former Marchon Industrial site, where it will take advantage of the existing Sandwith Anhydrite mine drift tunnels to gain access to the high-value coking coal that lies offshore. The Sandwith Anhydrite mine tunnels have now been fully investigated and planning can begin regarding their remediation, as they are currently damaged and unworkable from 30 years of neglect.

The mine, to be known as Woodhouse Colliery, is hoped to produce 3.2Mtpa. It will use run-out and pocket extraction, taking advantage of technological advances to mitigate many of the safety concerns surrounding the extraction. West Cumbria Mining hopes to begin production in 2019.