A Cornish business is set to attract custom from mining and mineral processing companies across the world after launching a service that is unique in the UK. Redruth-based geological consultancy firm Petrolab has invested in a new system, which can assess the composition and quality of materials.

The firm has tripled its workforce since developing its mineral analysis division, through support from Plymouth University.

Automated mineralogy allows rapid quantitative analysis of minerals, rocks and manufactured materials using high-tech equipment, based around a high resolution scanning electron microscope (SEM). By investing in its new Mineralogic Mining automated mineral analysis system, supplied by ZEISS, Petrolab is now offering this service to mining companies, mineral processing firms or metal trading firms.

Petrolab’s expansion into this new area started in 2012 after the firm secured a Plymouth University and Western Morning News Growth Fund grant, through GAIN (the Growth Acceleration and Investment Network).

Petrolab’s Director and Principal Consultant James Strongman explains:

“In a discussion about the grant, the University suggested that we might be interested in their newly refurbished Electron Microscopy Centre. We were one of the first commercial users of the revamped centre and soon developed a very close working relationship with the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC) team.
“We had used other SEM equipment, but found that PEMC had the most up to date facilities in the region and could meet our clients’ tight deadlines. We also benefited from PEMC’s remote software, which meant members of the team could view datasets and images being generated in Plymouth from our offices in Redruth.”

Petrolab has since benefited from regular support from PEMC and other areas of the University through GAIN. This included a Knowledge Transfer Partnership, which gave the firm University expertise and a graduate employee to create a commercial application using SEM equipment. Petrolab has also established strong links with the University’s geology department, whose expertise has helped them to grow. This included a student project to develop a prototype software tool for viewing geological datasets, with Petrolab employing the student after graduation.

To meet increasing demand from a growing number of customers, Petrolab has now invested in its own SEM equipment, which was installed in the summer.

James Strongman added:

“Working with the University gave us the confidence to expand into automated mineralogy. Without having had such a high level of support from the University we would never have got to this stage. It’s so refreshing to see the enthusiasm across the University – from the team at PEMC to academics in the geology department – for working with a business like ours. We’ve found everyone to be very open and keen to help.
“I see automated mineralogy as the highest growth area of our business. With Cornwall developing a hub of mining services businesses, it is great for us to be a UK leader in this field.”

Head of GAIN Adrian Dawson said:

“Petrolab’s expansion into the field of automated mineralogy is a great opportunity for Cornwall to further its reputation as a global leader in support services for minerals and mining firms. I am delighted that the University has been able to work with Petrolab in so many different ways as the firm has identified a niche and an opportunity to expand.
“Petrolab’s journey over the last three years is a great example of how businesses can tap into the range of support Plymouth University can offer. I hope we can continue to work with the team as they grow.”

PEMC was transformed in 2012 as part of a £1.3 million three-year project, jointly funded by the University, JEOL (UK) Ltd and a £579,960 grant from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). It has created a world-class centre for electron microscopy, giving the University state of the art support for research, teaching and industrial collaboration.