In the first of our series about the women driving technology, engineering and digital creativity in Cornwall, we talk to Lucy Crane. Lucy is a senior geologist with Cornish Lithium, the company that’s exploring for lithium beneath the old mine workings at United Downs, near Redruth.
We caught up with Lucy to ask her about lithium’s role in combating climate change, and what led her to a career in the mining industry.
TECgirls: What work is your company doing?
Lucy: We’re looking for lithium in the geothermal waters that circulate naturally underneath Cornwall. If we find enough of it, we want to put boreholes down to at least a kilometre’s depth, pump the water up to the surface and extract lithium from it.
Why lithium – and why Cornwall?
One way to combat climate change is to move from fossil fuel-powered cars powered to electric cars. Lithium is a key metal in electric car batteries, as it’s quite light and it can hold a charge for a long time. But there can be 50 or 60 kilos of lithium carbonate in a single car battery, so we need a lot of it!
Beneath our feet in Cornwall there are huge amounts of the minerals we need for the clean energy revolution – not just lithium, but other metals as well. At the same time there’s an amazing stock of natural capital, like wind, wave and geothermal energy.
That means there’s a good chance we can extract the metals in a low-carbon way, using the heat from the geothermal water to help power the processing plant. A company in Germany is already doing zero-carbon lithium extraction, and there’s great potential to do the same here in Cornwall.
What does your job involve?
It really varies! Part of it is taking old mine maps from the days when Cornwall was being mined for tin and copper, and turning them into a big 3D model.
Old mine maps contain clues about where lithium might be found in warm geothermal waters.
There are hundreds of years of maps, and some of them are huge – 4m long and 2m wide. Our digital archivist is turning them into 2D digital maps, and then we’re using software called Leapfrog to turn them all into a big 3D model of what’s going on beneath the surface. That gives us an idea of the best places to drill our boreholes.
Then we go out and test the rock. At United Downs we’ve drilled a 1,000m deep hole and taken a continuous sample of the rock for the whole way. Imagine pushing a straw through a cake with loads of layers, then pulling it back out. You’ve got all the layers of the cake in a tube. That’s what we’ve got – but the straw is 1km long and full of rock! We can then examine it and see where lithium might be.
“Imagine pushing a straw through a cake with loads of layers, then pulling it back out. You’ve got all the layers of the cake in a tube. That’s what we’ve got – except the straw is 1km long and full of rock!”
What made you choose mining as a career?
At school, I loved science, biology, maths and geography. I wanted to study geography at university, but I couldn’t see a course I liked. When my dad suggested geology, I thought it was just looking at rocks, it seemed really dull. But when I looked into it some more, I realised you could go on really cool field trips to different countries, so I signed up to study earth sciences and it was brilliant.
I realised that what I love about geology is that it's science that explains the world we live in. We learned so much: from how humans evolved from chains of hydrocarbons, to what caused mass extinction events, and why we’re experiencing climate change. It gives you a toolkit to understand how things work, and how we might be able to solve some of the problems that society is facing.
I wouldn’t naturally have thought of mining as a way to do that. But I discovered that the mining industry gives you opportunities to travel to amazing remote places and find things that society needs. In my first job, the company was exploring for silver, gold, copper and tin in Morocco and Ethiopia. I got paid to go hiking and camping in the High Atlas mountains, which was pretty cool.
What advice do you have for girls thinking about a career in science or engineering?
The main thing is to just do things you're interested in. We might get called geeks, but being a geek is actually really cool. They're people who are interested in things and know about stuff.
“Being a geek is actually really cool – they're people who are interested in things and know about stuff.”
So I’d say keep doing the things you're interested in, and be really enthusiastic about them. Keep asking loads of questions. And if you study science subjects at school, that’s a good grounding for so many things – so you can keep your career options open for so much longer.
How can parents encourage their daughters’ interest in science?
Just encourage them to be curious. Even if it's something you don't know anything about, maybe you've got a friend who does. There are so many resources online now too, and after-school clubs they can go to. But really just encourage kids to be curious. Don’t shut it down, find out why they're interested – and maybe if they have a science question, see if you can find the solution together.
Find out more about a career in mining
Lucy studied at Camborne School of Mines, part of Exeter University in Penryn. If you’d like to know more about a career in mining, explore their website at http://emps.exeter.ac.uk/csm/
Have A Go At Home
If you're interested in learning more about Geology at home, this book has 26 projects you can do at home. https://www.whsmith.co.uk/products/little-learning-labs-geology-for-kids-abridged-paperback-edition-26-projects-to-explore-rocks-gems-g/garret-romaine/paperback/9781631598111.html