Tungsten West steps up £45m revamp of vast Plymouth tungsten mine

Work is about to accelerate on a £45m rebuild of the processing plant at Plymouth’s vast tungsten mine – which will create hundreds of jobs.

In the next few months new equipment will arrive and another building will be constructed to complete the processing line at the Hemerdon Mine, Plympton.

This will create hundreds of construction jobs and mean the mine, the third largest tungsten resource in the world, is expected to be in full production by 2023.

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It will then see the current 70 workers joined by more that 200 other permanent staff, with potentially 2,400 jobs supported through the supply chain.

AIM-listed Tungsten West, which bought the mine out of receivership for £2.8m in 2019, will also be producing tin from the open cast pit and selling waste granite as aggregate for the construction industry.

“We are very excited about this,” said Max Denning, chief executive of Tungsten West. “There will be hundreds of people involved in the rebuilding phase and then 300 people working on site during its operation. That’s direct jobs.

“For the supply chain we have an eight times multiplier on every job on the mining project. And there are 20 years of mine-life.”

Tungsten West completed a feasibility study in 2021 and has been carrying out internal work on the processing plant left by previous operator Wolf Minerals Ltd at the mine.

Wolf sunk more than £170m into the project but suffered major problems with the plant and went into administration in late 2018 after just three years in production.

Tungsten West has been carrying out repairs in the areas of the production plant where the ore is concentrated and upgraded, as part of its £45m capital expenditure programme.

Mr Denning said there are now only “minor tweaks” needed to these parts of the plant, which will be put right in the next three months.

Meanwhile crushing and screening machinery from the Wolf era, which is not fit for purpose, is to be removed and replaced with top of the range South African-built equipment, which will be much quieter.

Work will also be starting soon to construct a low-level building, which will not be visible from outside the mine and also negate the need for a mine waste facility on the site. This building will contain German-manufactured x-ray and ore-sorting technology, already made and imported into the UK.

“We are looking at completing construction by the end of the year or early 2023,” said Mr Denning. “This is not just fixing the old line but optimising it with x-ray transmission ore-sorting.”

The Hemerdon Mine contains a huge ore body, about 300m by 200m. The granite is shot through with quartz veins containing tungsten.

Instead of just crushing the rocks to 8mm pieces and then separating out the tungsten, as Wolf did, Tungsten West has a more efficient approach.

It will take “fist-sized” 80mm lumps and scan them via an x-ray laser. Air jets will then sort the rocks containing tungsten from those that are barren.

“We can reject two thirds of the material,” Mr Denning said. “So we don’t need to crush as much as Wolf did.”

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Only once rocks containing tungsten have been identified will they be crushed into small particles, and the tungsten separated out. The waste granite will be sold as aggregate for the construction industry and Tungsten West has already signed a distribution deal with GRS Roadstone, a leading construction materials provider.

The vast seam at Hemerdon will make it, and therefore the UK, the third largest tungsten producer in the world, after China and Vietnam and ahead of Russia and Bolivia. Demand for tungsten and commodity prices are rising. It is seen as an “enabling metal” used in a huge variety of industries including automotive, aerospace, green technologies such as electric vehicles and even nuclear energy.

“For the economy this is significant and on a global scale it is a big deal,” Mr Denning said.

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William TelfordBusiness Editor, Plymouth Live