In September the first new metal ore mine in the UK for around 45 years is due to start production on the edge of Dartmoor. Hemerdon Mine (also known as Drakelands Mine) near Plymouth will start extracting tungsten from the world’s fourth largest deposit of the mineral, as recognised by the British Geological Survey (1). The reserves at the site are estimated to be around 35.7 million tonnes (2).
Tungsten (also known as Wolfram) is a silver-coloured metal and has the highest melting point of any pure metal. The mineral also has high thermal and electrical conductivity. Due to its properties and ability to withstand high temperatures, the metal is used in a number of industries and products including the aviation industry and for filaments in lighting (1).
It is estimated that around 60% of tungsten reserves are in China, with other major deposits also found in Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada and the UK (1).
The mine at Hemerdon
Tungsten was originally discovered near Hemerdon in the mid-1800s and small scale extraction of the mineral took place during a number of periods when the mineral was required for ammunition during the First and Second World Wars (1).
After the Second World War the mine at Hemerdon was closed, as importing tungsten to the UK resumed. There have been a number of attempts to reopen the mine since the 1960s, with Devon County Council granting planning permission to reopen the site in 1986.
However, the mine was never reopened. Devon County Council reviewed the site in the early 2000s as part of their Minerals Local Plan. The council, along with Wolf Minerals and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government updated the planning permission in 2011 and permission for extraction at the site runs until 2021.
The £130 million project is being led by Australian company Wolf Minerals, and they hope to produce around 5000 tonnes of tungsten and 1000 tonnes of tin each year (2), although drilling surveys carried out at the site in 2014 have revealed deposits may be around 20% larger than originally thought (3). As a result of this discovery, Devon County Council have already launched a public consultation on the possibility of the mine’s operational period being extended, which would see mining of the site extended for a further two years (4).
The extraction process at Hemerdon will be an open pit mine approximately 850m long by 450m wide, and 200m deep. The first ore processing at the site took place in June 2015, with full scale operation expected to start in September 2015.
Within the planning permission for the site there are a number of strict conditions to help protect the surrounding environment, with the technical and environmental operations requiring Environment Agency permits. This includes the extraction of the mineral, discharge of water and the operation of a new waste facility nearby (6).
Why is this happening?
Global demand for tin and tungsten has been increasing, meaning it is becoming more viable to look at mining options in the UK to exploit the vast reserves of the mineral we have.
Currently, the UK is mainly dependent on supplies of the metal from other countries, however the opening of the mine in the UK will mean we are able to meet our own demands for several years (6).
The global price of tungsten has more than doubled since the start of 2010 (5). It is seen as a critical mineral by the UK, US and the European Union. The mine at Hemerdon is expected to produce around 3.5% of the forecast global demand for tungsten in 2016 (7).
The development of the mine is also expected to create more than 200 direct jobs and give a boost of millions to the South Devon economy (6). This is seen as a significant project, as it will allow the UK to meet its tungsten needs without the need to import the mineral, and it will also create valuable export revenue for the UK.
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