Australia has an abundance of rare minerals. Does it have an appetite to get them to the world?
They’re not called critical minerals for nothing. They’re irreplaceable. Without them, much of the technology our modern lives are built on can’t work. And their supply isn’t always guaranteed.
We need huge amounts of specialist minerals to electrify the world’s economies, build battery farms and assemble renewable energy turbines. Not to mention their demand in everyday and defence gadgets.
That’s why regional Australia is being scoured by foot and by satellite like never before. It’s already the world’s largest supplier of nickel, rutile, tantalum and zircon. It’s also in the top five for cobalt, lithium, copper, antimony, niobium and vanadium.
But we need much, much more of these – and others – to electrify the world’s economies, build battery farms and assemble renewable energy turbines. Not to mention meet demand in everyday and defence gadgets.
Australia has the potential to meet much of this need, says business management consultancy head Michael Huggins. And that’s becoming increasingly viable as industries the world over begin to recognise the value of reliability and sustainability over cut-price deals.
The result could be the creation of about 52,000 jobs – mostly in regional areas, says Huggins, the Australia and New Zealand director of Partners in Performance.
“As Australia positions itself in becoming the critical minerals powerhouse supporting clean energy technologies, the growth and expansion of downstream processing is expected to be phenomenal,” Huggins says. “Apart from boosting the economy, it will breed a new generation of high-skill, high-tech jobs.”
Now it’s a matter of delivering on this promise in a timely manner, says Associate Professor Mohan Yellishetty, a resources engineering researcher at Monash University. “But to date, we are not making the most of this opportunity,” he argues. “Many of these vital minerals end up on the pile of discarded tailings. The question is, why are we not extracting them or re-mining them? Compared to other major critical mineral suppliers such as China, we are lagging behind.”
The importance of copper to electric components is well known. And lithium has become a household name as small but powerful batteries become ubiquitous. Then there are those equally critical for modern technologies with more obscure names – like rutile, tantalum, niobium and vanadium.
That’s why the federal government’s 2022 Critical Minerals Strategy in April granted a $1.25 billion dollar loan to expand a facility in Western Australia.
It’s Australia’s first rare earth refinery, run by Iluka Resources at Eneabba, about 300 kilometres north of Perth. It will produce praseodymium, dysprosium, neodymium and terbium – all of which are used in small but powerful magnets.
Such magnets are a critical component of lightweight electric motors and generators, which represent the heart of the technological battle against climate change.
Eneabba’s new roasting, leaching, purification, extraction and finishing facilities are expected to produce some 17,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides each year. About 300 people are being employed for the construction phase over the next few months. Once completed in 2025, the facility will need an ongoing operational workforce of about 270.
Similar projects seeking approval include a Hastings Technology Metals rare earths project at Yangibana, north-east of Carnarvon in WA (slated to begin by the end of 2023). Australian Vanadium wants to develop a site near Meekatharra, about 740km north-east of Perth. And Albermarle is building a lithium hydroxide processing facility at the Kemerton Industrial Park near Bunbury, WA.
Kalgoorlie is also becoming a focus of activity. Lynas Rear Earths has begun building a processing facility there (again expected to begin operations next year). And the historic mining town is the subject of a $119.6 million federal government Modern Manufacturing Initiatives feasibility study into becoming a battery cathode refinery hub.
The Australian Government has categorised 26 minerals as critical to our economic and technological future.
“Australia has many of the elements the world needs to make advanced technology like smartphones, computers, solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles. We’re already a world-leading resource exporter and supply many countries with high quality, ethically sourced minerals using environmentally sustainable practices,” boasts the Department of Industry, Science and Resources.
But other key sources of supply – in Africa, Asia and South America – are struggling against internal unrest, corruption, and deteriorating public infrastructure.
“In a time of huge geopolitical uncertainty, securing these minerals has become an ever more challenging issue. Soaring demand has led to price volatility, commercial risks, geopolitical manoeuvring and disruptions to supply,” explains Yellishetty.
Because of their scarcity, such minerals have also become tools in international power politics – such as when China disrupted Japan’s high-tech industries during a 2010 dispute.
“If we get this right, Australia could play a major role in stabilising the markets for several critical mineral supply chains such as rare earth elements, lithium and cobalt,” Yellishetty says.
It also puts the nation in a powerful spot, adds Huggins: “This positions Australia as the main contender in the critical minerals sector on a global scale.”
Well-established mining regions cover just 20% of Australia. The remaining 80% remains largely under-explored.
Part of the problem has been a matter of scale. Big iron and copper mining operations, for example, can see the extraction of affiliated critical minerals as an unwanted complication. And smaller miners find it hard to raise capital for crucial equipment.
Now moves are afoot to change this.
Some $2 billion has been set aside under the 2022 Critical Minerals Strategy to help small and medium-sized Australian mining companies get off the ground.
“More investments, especially from smaller and mid-tier mining and exploration companies to increase production and meet global supply chain demands will help Australia lead the way in critical minerals supply by 2030,” Huggins says.
More on critical minerals: Why Australia needs a local lithium-ion battery supply chain
Performance Partners is involved in several projects seeking to keep the critical minerals process as clean as possible. One involves sifting through the tailings of an old mining site, with 70% of its power needs being met by solar and wind generators. Another is a greenfield mining project determined to establish its carbon net-zero credentials from the outset.
“Incentivising programs and encouraging mining companies to install or repurpose existing facilities to produce critical minerals would enhance Australia’s role in stabilising the critical mineral supply chain market,” says Huggins. “These factors, riding on the backbone of Australia’s reputation for environmentally and socially responsible governance, would propel Australia into being at the forefront of the critical minerals mining sector.”
The mining industry is aware that Australia – and the world – will be watching this dramatic increase in mining actively closely, he adds. And that means clean technologies must be adopted quickly along with adherence to ESG (environmental, social, and governance) standards.
“Australia can attest to sourcing for minerals in environmentally and socially responsible ways with its strong and efficient regulatory environment. Workers involved in the sector are also protected,” Huggins says. “This sets Australia apart from its competitors that may operate at a lower cost, but at the expense of the environment or its workforce.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.