The British Empire, on which the sun never set at its zenith, was built upon steam engines and machinery; steamships and railways, and in turn these industrial marvels were built upon coal. Vast amounts of it, it should be added. Today, however, much like the days of empire, mining in Britain is seen by most as a relic of a bygone era, unfit for and incompatible with a leading global nation with low-carbon aspirations.
Whilst it is not out for the count, per se, the UK mining sector has very much taken a backseat role as far as generating wealth and employment opportunities are concerned. In pound-for-pound terms, the UK has substantial deposits of minerals and metals beneath its soil but, in today’s globalised world, it is simply not economically feasible to extract resources like iron ore, copper, and other essential metals and minerals when it can be imported from China, Chile, and Brazil, among other nations, at a fraction of the cost.
And yet whilst its mining heyday is behind it, the mining sector lives on in the UK, albeit it on a smaller scale. Coal is out, of course, but the complex geology of its earth and rock combined with a level of capability that is world-class, if not world-leading, means that UK mining still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Something of a renaissance is taking place in the UK, with an example being in Cornwall where former tin and tungsten mines are being regenerated and redeveloped. Initially, this very British renaissance appeared as if it would not extend to the north of England, the former ironstone heartlands of the country, but a recent and entirely unplanned turn of events means that the region appears set to return to its mining roots once more.
In north Yorkshire and Teesside, areas of the country that are synonymous with mining and industry, a mineral once regarded as a geological oddity is set to put UK mining back on the map.
“Polyhalite is unique, in that it is a naturally-occurring mineral made-up of four of the six macronutrients required for plant growth: calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sulphur. It is a ready-made natural fertiliser, available in such abundance here, in North Yorkshire, that it can make a substantial impact on the global fertiliser market,” explained Maurice Rankin, General Manager of Corporate Communications at Sirius Minerals.
He continued: “Farmers typically use a multitude of different fertilisers to help improve yield and crop growth. This product brings a four-in-one option that will replace and enhance current fertiliser blends, resulting in more efficient, effective, flexible and sustainable fertiliser practices. This is essential in a world with a fast-growing population and diminishing agricultural resources.”
The number of trials on POLY4, the commercial name for Sirius’ polyhalite product, now stands at 372, on 41 crops in 27 different countries. The research has shown improved yield on a wide range of crops, compared to other potassium-based fertilisers. Sirius say it will be the most dynamic, exciting and disruptive new fertiliser product to enter the market in some time, and it is no stretch to say that its effect on the agricultural sector could be transformative. It is little wonder that, already, Sirius Minerals has already signed supply contracts with clients in North America, South America in Brazil, China, and a number of other countries in South-East Asia and across Africa.
For many years, polyhalite was a geological oddity – known about, but not widely understood or studied. Its existence in the north east of England had been discovered in the 1930s, as a result of exploratory drilling for oil, gas and potash, but nobody had thought to seriously consider exploiting it as a fertiliser because it is usually only available in small quantities. However, by pure chance, the UK is swimming in it – 2.66 billion tonnes of it, to be precise. The seam in north Yorkshire is an average of 25 metres thick, going up to 70 metres at its thickest point, and it also happens to be astonishingly pure.
To extract this mineral treasure, work is currently underway to build the Woodsmith Mine in Whitby – the first deep mine in the UK in 40 years. Unsurprisingly this has not only captured the attention of the business community and investors, but also the imagination of many living in communities that for generations were centred around the mining and heavy industrial developments in and around the region, such as the now-closed Redcar steelworks.
Woodsmith Mine will be comprised of two one-mile deep mine shafts that will access the polyhalite seam running across north Yorkshire and out into the North Sea. These will connect to a 23-mile tunnel featuring a conveyer belt system that will transport the mineral to Teesside for processing and shipping around the world.
“It’s a pretty big infrastructure project – one of the biggest in the UK, in fact,” says Maurice. “It will provide thousands of jobs for people living in the region during the construction phase and then for decades to come once the mine is operational. It will also provide the country with export revenue valued at £2.5 billion per annum, providing benefits for many years to come for the UK.”
The company raised US$1.2bn in 2016 to start construction, through a mixture of equity, convertible bonds and a royalty investment from Australian firm Hancock Prospecting. It expects to raise another US$3.5bn, mainly through debt financing, in early 2019 to complete the project.
“That will be enough to sink the mineshafts, build the tunnel, build the factory and port facility, and put in place the capability to produce up to 10 million tonnes per annum,” he states. “We’re targeting first polyhalite by late 2021 and get up to a production level of 10 million by 2024. Then the expansion to 20 million tonnes will be sourced from operational cashflows.”
The Woodsmith site development will be made-up entirely of long-life infrastructure, which will assure the project’s long-term, high-volume and low-cost production viability and capability. The mine itself will be made-up of two deep shafts – a production shaft and service shaft, which will both access the polyhalite shelf seam.
Upon its completion, the shaft will reach a depth of 1,594m – equivalent to five Shard skyscrapers -and be fitted with a Blair multi-rope (BMR) winder with two 39-tonne capacity skips and rope guides capable of hoisting 6.7 million tonnes per annum. The shaft will have skip loading facilities at 1,520m and skip unloading facilities closer to the surface at 360m, where polyhalite will be transferred to the mineral transport system’s tunnel (MTS) conveyor, an impressive system that is a feat of engineering in its own right.
“The mineral transport system came about because of the position of the mine under the North York Moors,” Maurice explains. “We had always committed to transporting minerals from the mine in a way that would have the lowest possible environmental impact, and the best way to do that was to dig this tunnel with a 23-mile conveyer belt in it. The additional benefit of the tunnel is that it provides a very reliable, safe, and low-cost method of transportation that we are in complete control of. Most mines around the world will rely on either road transport or long railways to transport their minerals to a shipping facility. That wasn’t something that we were going to rely on.
The mineral transport system represents a major engineering undertaking, but it’s using very tried, tested, and reliable technology familiar to any large mine around the world. It will be capable of providing economies of scale and efficiency for many decades to come.”
The story of Sirius Minerals and the development of the Woodsmith project is a fascinating one, but no more fascinating than the man responsible for making it all happen, Chris Fraser – the company’s founder and CEO is ‘the man behind the mine.’ Since his re-discovery of the polyhalite seam in 2010, Chris has been persistent, to say the least, in his efforts to bring the Woodsmith project to life against difficult odds. The word ‘difficult’ perhaps being an understatement – persuading the authorities to green light the building of a mine in a national park is hard enough, and that’s without factoring in the 400 landowners he also had to charm and cajole into signing up mineral rights.
Much like the 19th-century pioneers who tunnelled through the soil and rock of Britain in search of iron and coal, before then throwing up railways, bridges and viaducts to transport it, Chris Fraser is an old-school pioneering sort who is nothing if not determined. An investment banker by trade, Fraser decided to go his own way after working as the lead advisor on a US$2.5 billion fundraiser for Australian miner, Fortescue Metals, in 2006. He began to scour the world for promising deposits in developed nations and it wasn’t long before he heard talk of large potash deposits in North Yorkshire that had been mined at Boulby since the 1960s. Further investigation revealed not only sylvinite deposits, the source of traditional potash, but polyhalite, and in unprecedented quality and quantity. The rest is history, as they say.
The Woodsmith-inspired return of mining to the north of England, an area which has been blighted by de-industrialisation, is almost certainly going to have a transformative effect on the socio-economic fabric of north Yorkshire and Teesside. Hundreds of jobs have already been created for the ongoing construction and development of the site, with a total of 1700 construction jobs expected to be created over the course of the build. 1,000 long term direct jobs will be created across both regions for school leavers, graduates, and other potential employees with the skills and passion when the project has been completed and is running at full capacity.
The UK’s mining industry inactivity in recent decades means that in terms of technology and advanced mine construction know-how, Sirius has at times had to take a global approach to finding elite technical staff and engineering support. However, where Sirius can ‘go local’ and make sure that local people, local businesses, and local communities benefit first from the project, it will, according to Maurice:
“We are very determined to make sure local people benefit from this project as much as possible in terms of jobs and economic benefits. In the long term we hope to have a workforce that is around 80% local. To get Woodsmith Mine built, we have relied as much as possible on local labour, and we have a strong local supply chain using local suppliers and local companies, ranging from relatively large engineering and supply firms to very local small businesses.
Of course, for some of the very highly skilled and technical jobs we have here in terms of mine construction, we have to look further afield for personnel. There are some specialist companies that we have brought in like Bauer from Germany, and in terms of digging the mine itself, we have formed a partnership with Canadian company, DMC – a big industry player who have dug deep mines all around the world. We’re working with them because they represent the cutting-edge of mining technology, allowing us to excavate the mine shafts faster and more safely.”
Of course, building a mine is one thing. Building a mine in an area of outstanding natural beauty in a national park in Yorkshire is quite another. The legislation protecting green belt land in the UK is legendary for its intransigence, so sustainability and low environmental impact is absolutely at the heart of Sirius Mineral’s operations.
Maurice elaborated: “We are really leading the way in how mining can be more sustainable, and this is going to be crucial for the future of the mining sector over the years to come in a world where populations are increasing and space is diminishing. If we are to feed and supply a growing population and continue to deliver a standard of living where people can benefit from a modern, urban developed lifestyle, we will require more mining and materials. This in turn will require an innovative way of thinking and more sustainable ways of doing things.
Our mine has been designed to be low-impact. The mining infrastructure below ground will not be seen, the surface buildings will be low-rise and the entire site be wooded and landscaped, so as to not impact the beauty of the North Yorkshire countryside. The only way you will be able to see any indication of its presence is if you fly over it in a helicopter.
Throughout the construction phase, the company must follow very strict rules to make sure there is as little impact on local communities as possible. Limits on light pollution, noise, watercourses, transportation and caps on the number of vehicles that can come in and out of the mine every day, are all in place to minimise the impact of the project in every possible way.
“In addition, we are able to sell our product with zero chemical processing. One tonne of polyhalite ore produces one tonne of polyhalite fertiliser – the only thing we do is crush it and reform it into pellets – so we have sustainability running through every facet of what we’re doing here.
With a projected mine lifespan of more than a century, even after 20 to 30 years mining Sirius Minerals will only have ventured a few kilometres from the mine-head. The polyhalite seam stretches out into the North Sea, as far as the coast of Denmark, Germany, and Poland. The only limit on how much mineral can be mined is an economic one – at what distance will it become uneconomical to mine mineral from the mine-head? One day out at sea, no doubt, but certainly there’s enough down there to last a long, long time.
This project is unique, and it is fitting that the project that will put the UK mining back on the map is in a region so synonymous with mining. Maurice concluded on this point, saying: “It is exciting that Woodsmith Mine is being developed in North Yorkshire, where there is a long history in the development of mining stretching back to the 18th century and 19th century. We’re very proud of that industrial heritage, and we’re proud that our project will help bring that back to the UK.”