‘I work in mining – and I care about the environment’: the geologist prospecting for a greener future | Smarter science
For geologist Lucy Crane, retrofitting the 1960s property she has just moved into is all about future-proofing. Just a minute’s walk from the Cornish coast near Pendennis Castle in Falmouth, the two-bedroom house is hot as a greenhouse during the day and cold at night – plus there’s no central heating, just a few storage heaters.
“It would be madness for us to put in a gas boiler when we need to be moving away from fossil fuels,” says Crane, who is expecting her first child with her partner Alex, a naval officer.
“We’re starting from scratch, so why not be more efficient? We’re going to install an air-source heat pump, double glazing and lots of insulation – and smart meters too. Innovations like these can have such a big impact in helping to reduce energy waste as well as our home’s carbon footprint.”
Crane is making her renovations as eco-conscious as possible, and recognises how small changes like getting a smart meter can help integrate more renewable energy into the system and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. “It’s actually really exciting that we can be involved in this transition,” she says. “There are some really positive and proactive steps we can all take with our homes to reduce our carbon emissions and make them as efficient as possible, which will enable change to happen much more quickly.”
When she’s not working on the renovations, Crane is busy exploring what lies beneath the rugged landscape of Cornwall, a county with a rich mining heritage. As an earth scientist, she enjoys finding new solutions to tricky problems: “I’ve always been really curious about the world around us and geology teaches you to question things.”
Deep beneath the Cornish countryside, geothermal waters circulate that are rich in lithium, a metal used in the making of mobile phones, laptops and electric car batteries. With the rapid transition to low-carbon technologies and more widespread electric transport, global demand for lithium is predicted to rise by 965% by 2050, compared with 2018, according to the World Bank.
Most of our lithium is currently either extracted from hard rock in Australia using extremely high temperatures or taken from underground salt lakes in Argentina or Chile. It’s then usually shipped to China where it’s refined into battery-grade lithium chemicals, then manufactured into battery cells in South Korea perhaps, before being shipped elsewhere for installation into cars, laptops or smartphones. It’s a long and convoluted global supply chain.
As a senior geologist for Cornish Lithium, Crane is on a mission to develop a modern, responsible mining industry that could transform how electric car batteries are produced. The company is developing sustainable ways to extract the sought-after metal – drilling boreholes up to a mile deep, pumping water to the surface where the lithium will be extracted, then returning the water to the geothermals below.
“We’re lucky here in the south-west because we’ve got so much amazing natural capital and the potential to produce some of the critical materials that will enable the electric transition,” she says. “I’m excited about the potential of having an electric car industry in the UK. If we can responsibly produce lithium and get that made into batteries here, it will transform the carbon cost of the supply chain. The time really is now to do this locally, to higher environmental and social standards.”
Living sustainably, in harmony with the natural world, is key to Crane’s outlook, and is one of the reasons she’s so drawn to Cornwall. She first fell in love with the county while studying for her master’s at the Camborne School of Mines in 2013, and then returned for work three years ago. She loves being able to visit Falmouth’s zero-waste shop, walk into town to buy fresh, local line-caught fish and, above all, get to the beach every morning. “It’s amazing just being able to walk the dog along the coast path or go for a dip in the sea down at Castle beach.
“A lot of people might be surprised to hear that I care about the environment and work in the mining industry,” says Crane. “But to combat the climate crisis we need low-carbon technologies, which means we’ll need to mine more raw materials than we ever have done in the past. I want to be part of the solution, and that starts with thinking much more carefully about the supply chains that produce the stuff that we own and the energy we use.”
Crane believes that, as consumers, we all have to ask more questions about where our stuff comes from. We might be more aware of food miles now – and realise that seasonal produce from the local shop has a lower carbon footprint than, say, avocados air-freighted from Peru – but the reality is that we need to take more responsibility for our own consumption.
On this, Crane doesn’t just talk the talk. Her passion for more transparent, streamlined supply chains, building a circular economy and reducing waste is the reason she and her partner have decided to buy secondhand clothes and kit for their baby. It was also the inspiration for Retrospecced – an online business selling pre-loved glasses frames – which she set up with her mum Tracey, an optometrist, four years ago. “When my prescription changed, I realised it was madness that old pairs of glasses just got discarded even when they’re amazing quality,” says Crane, who wears a 1950s pair of vintage NHS 524s. “It’s ridiculous that so many good frames are being melted and turned into traffic cones or just thrown away.”
As a child growing up in the Midlands, Crane spent a lot of time playing outside, and remembers finding learning so much easier when she was getting hands-on with nature. Her dad was a vet and the family lived in the middle of the countryside in a house that was full of animals – “like a zoo”, she says.
At school, she liked biology, chemistry and geography, but never expected she would end up working in mining. Now she’s keen to spread the word about the opportunities such a career can lead to and, whenever possible, speaks in schools.
“Like me, children usually just want to make sense of everything around them and find out more about how their world works,” she says.
And it’s these passions – for science, nature and indulging curiosity – that Crane is most looking forward to passing on to her own child. “I’d love for our child to grow up splashing about in rockpools, caring about what’s in the ocean,” she says. “I’d love for them to feel connected to where they live, connected to nature, and I hope that they can derive as much happiness from being out and about exploring as I do.”
Join the energy revolution and contact your energy supplier to request a smart meter. For more information visit smartenergygb.org
This article was paid for by Smart Energy GB – the not-for-profit, government-backed campaign helping everyone in Britain to understand the importance of smart meters and their benefits to people and the environment.