Platinum galore: remote island of Unst gets ready for a boom in precious metals

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The Independent Online

People in Britain's most northerly inhabited island may already enjoy an abundance of natural riches but scientists have uncovered evidence that suggests they may have a more worldly wealth under their feet.

People in Britain's most northerly inhabited island may already enjoy an abundance of natural riches but scientists have uncovered evidence that suggests they may have a more worldly wealth under their feet.

After months of combing Unst, in the Shetland Islands, for signs of mineral deposits, geologists are on the verge of establishing whether the tiny community of 720 people could be sitting on a jackpot of platinum. They believe there is enough on Unst to make a mine financially viable.

Researchers have made six visits to the island and each time they have been encouraged by the results of soil and rock samples. In the mid-1980s, exploration suggested the precious metal was present in many times the densities of other commercial mines.

A more thorough analysis is still being performed at the AS Chemex Laboratories in Vancouver, but the inhabitants of Unst are hoping for a very happy 2005, especially because platinum is also the vital component in the island's other pioneering business venture: turning water into hydrogen.

In April, the island will open the first community-owned hydrogen production plant in Europe to harness wind power that will help split hydrogen from oxygen in water so it can be bottled. The main catalyst in the electrolyser which converts the water into hydrogen is made from platinum, so to have a source of the essential ingredient for a new industry on their doorstep could be a great help.

Sandy Macaulay, the manager of the island's economic development agency, Unst Partnership, said: "These precious metals are becoming scarce and security of supply is becoming more of an issue. The possession of even a modest amount, and having that secured for exploitation if the worst happened is worthwhile."

The rights to explore and mine the island are held by Agricola Resources which paid £95,000 last year to the island's Alexander Sandisons & Sons, of Baltasound, owner of the UK's only talcum mine, for the right to exploit an area of the island.

"We are very optimistic," Robert Young, chairman of Agricola, said. "We have known for a while that there is platinum there but nobody has ever made a systematic survey."

If the final findings are positive, a platinum mine could provide much-needed jobs. In the past few years, the isolated north Atlantic island, best known for its variety of protected wildlife, has suffered a population fall from more than 1,000 since the Royal Air Force reduced its base at Saxa Vord.

Opencast mining is unlikely because of the island's rich wildlife. Much of it is a sanctuary for thousands of gannets, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags, great skuas, Arctic skuas and whimbrels. Mr Young said: "We would like to find evidence of an underground deposit because we don't want to cause damage to the surface.

Many islanders are treating the news cautiously, because other attempts to discover and mine platinum have come to nothing. But the value of platinum, usually used in jewellery, is outstripping gold: in the past year, the price of platinum rose 45 per cent and 18-carat gold has gone up by just 8 per cent.

Mr Macaulay added: "If there was a massive amount of platinum discovered it would have a huge environmental impact. I hope it does happen. A mining operation would be good for the island but it would have to be carefully controlled."

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