Copper in Cornwall and Metal-Eating Robots: The Latest Metal News

Copper in Cornwall and Metal-Eating Robots: The Latest Metal News

20th April 2020

The world of metals might seem like something that never changes. Yet, new discoveries are constantly changing the limits of our knowledge, shaking up the industry and suggesting new ways of using these materials.

A couple of recent examples from the news show us how this can happen.

An Unexpected Discovery in Cornwall

For many people, Cornwall is mainly associated with surfing, beaches and Poldark. Yet, this was once one of the planet’s most active mining areas. The mining industry in the South-West of England fell into decline before petering out at the end of the 20th century.

However, a recent discovery in a zone that was once known as the richest square mile on Earth could hold the key to a surprising revival in this industry. Engineers were searching for traces of lithium in hot underground springs when they found something very different below the ground.

This happened in the parish of Gwennap, which is near Redruth. It was once the most important copper mining region on the planet and is said to be the home of the Cornish pasty, which was originally a filling snack designed for miners to take to work with them.

The newly-found copper was located 100 metres from the surface. More minerals are believed to be fairly close to the surface, and this means that mining them may be feasible. Other mines in the area were explored at up to 500 metres of depth.

The deposit of high-grade copper that they discovered is in an area that hasn’t been mined before. Therefore, drilling will be carried out to explore the mining possibilities more fully. Most interestingly, the deposit contained 8% copper, which is 16 times the average grade that is found around the planet.

The Robots That Harvest Metals

The search for long-lasting energy sources that can be easily recharged has led to some incredible advances in battery technology in recent years. However, the work being carried out on a robot that consumes metal for its power could change everything.

The University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science has been working on a metal-air scavenger (known as MAS) that acts like a battery but that gets its power by forming and then breaking chemical bonds repeatedly.

It uses both the air around it and any metal that it passes over to draw out the energy that it needs. As the robot drives over a metallic surface, it leaves a microscopic layer of oxidation that covers up to 100 microns of the surface.

Yet, testing has shown that even repeated use over the same surface doesn’t cause any significant structural damage. It has been used on metals such as zinc, stainless steel and aluminium. So, it could have CE marked fabrications for lunch and zinc-plated surfaces for dinner.

The technology gives us a potentially never-ending power source that has 10 times more power density than energy harvesters and 13 times more than even the best current lithium-ion battery technology.

Above all, it could lead to a more autonomous robot that can search for metal surfaces that will give it the “food” that it needs to keep on operating indefinitely.