A North East mining company is searching for cobalt, nickel and copper under Aberdeenshire farmland.

Starting this weekend, Aberdeen Minerals will be flying a helicopter in the area between Maud in the north down to Belhelvie in the south and from the coast to Insch in the west. Using a machine which produces an electronic pulse, the helicopter will produce data to map the geology of the area with the daily flights taking a month to complete the 3700km survey. The aircraft will travel in strips at 200metre intervals at a height of 100m off the ground, moving at the relatively slow speed of 50mph in a bid to discover the precious minerals.

The project is being led by a group of investors who set up a company in 2018 after working in mineral exploration across the globe. They picked Aberdeenshire as previous surveys have suggested that there are deposits of cobalt, nickel and copper. The minerals are in high demand for making lithium batteries which are increasingly important as the economy phases out fossil fuels. The nickel price is currently sitting at around $21,000 per ton which has nearly doubled since March 2020.

The focus on the search is around the Arthath area which is 6km north of Ellon. Currently the company has agreements with around 20 farms for access and exploration. Most of the farms own their mineral rights – however in some cases the original owning estates have retained the rights, which has resulted in a three-party split on the agreement.

CEO of Aberdeen Minerals, Fraser Gardiner, said: “We are looking at where the demand will be in five to ten years and all the indications are that cobalt, nickel and copper will be needed and we don’t produce any in the UK. There was a lot of work done in the area in the 1970s and again in 2006 which all indicates there is deposits under the ground in Aberdeenshire. At the time when the original research was conducted the price environment was different and the technology was not as advanced so little was done to bring it to extraction.

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"But the mineral potential is there, it is even recognised by the local authority planning authority," noted Mr Gardiner. "The historic data and the research we have done since has been sufficient encouragement for our investors to progress with an aerial survey.”

The particular type of rock which the company is searching for is gabbro – coarse-grained igneous rock, similar to granite. The rock type is common across the North East of Scotland but rare in the rest of the country and can hold copper, cobalt and nickel.

Mr Gardiner explained: “The rock often holds small but rich enough deposits of the precious minerals to make extraction financially viable. We are at a very early stage, as we don’t know where the deposits are and if they even exist.”

Typically in other areas with similar geology, these types of deposits are 300 to 400 meters below the surface and in concentrations which suit underground mining. Some of the initial public reaction has been mixed to the prospect of mining, with many locals nervous about the enterprise. However, Mr Gardner is keen to stress that they are staying away entirely from an open cast mining system.

If the helicopter survey indicates that cobalt, nickel and copper are in the ground then further agreements will be needed with some land owners for investigations to take place.

Mr Fraser explained: “If the helicopter survey shows further investigation is worthy then it would be between three and five years of work to get to a position where we needed to decide if a mine is to be developed. To put this into context, prospects like here have a one in 100 chance of coming to fruition. There are so many technical, economic and environmental factors at play. But having said that, all the indications so far make it worthy of further investigation.

Currently all three minerals which are being searched for are imported to the UK. However the UK Government publish a Mineral Strategy which is encouraging more domestic production. At the moment the nearest copper mines to the UK are in Spain, Poland and Scandinavia. Nickel and cobalt are also mined in Scandinavia. But globally the biggest producers of coppers are in South America, cobalt from the Congo and Nickel from Russia and Indonesia.

Mining company hunts for precious minerals under Aberdeenshire farms