Australia has the resources to lead the world in battery production. If we did more than merely export those raw materials, we could supercharge our economy.
In the country I come from, Iran, I found myself surrounded at an early age by successful engineers in my family and in society – in Iran there’s actually a large proportion of people engaged in engineering disciplines. It was as clear as day to me that if I wanted to design something, bring about change, create something for the better, to have an impact in life, I should become an engineer. I did my undergraduate studies in materials engineering, which prepared me to become a battery engineer.
Things have changed fast in the battery world. About 10 years ago, the main idea of making a better battery was simply to make it more powerful – to make it last longer. But about five or six years ago, other criteria became extremely important: the idea of making batteries more sustainable, cleaner and more affordable. Scientists had started to reveal more and more of the downsides – the dirty secrets, if you like – about the production of lithium-ion batteries.
In fact, there have been lots of environmental and humanitarian issues related to mining for the materials that are required to make lithium-ion batteries. We might have thought that by driving an electric car we’re not hurting our environment, but batteries have been produced by emitting carbon. Over the past few years, it’s been important for me and for many in the industry to design batteries that are environmentally friendly in the materials that they use. Basically, we are trying to make low-carbon batteries.
I would say that the lithium-ion battery has proved its superiority for pretty much every application potential. It would be difficult to imagine that there would be a completely entirely new battery chemistry that could compete with lithium-ion. There could be supporting battery technologies, for example lithium-sulphur batteries, which is one of my areas of expertise. But these aren’t going to be able to cover all the applications that lithium-ion can accommodate. Lithium-ion is going to be here for quite a long time.
In fact, Australia is the largest producer in the world of lithium, contributing up to 50% of the world’s lithium mine/concentrate. Plus we have large deposits of nickel and cobalt, which are the other critical ingredients for lithium-ion batteries. Unfortunately, what we mainly do in Australia is dig for the raw materials and ship them overseas for refining, cell production and battery assembly. The fact that we are not involved in downstream processing in the battery supply chain brings us no more than 0.5% of the ultimate value of our exported minerals – a shockingly small profit.
Hopefully that will change for the better! That’s become a focus for me, to advocate for a local battery supply chain in Australia or, at the very least, moving further along the battery supply chain to refining and electrochemical production stages. Such a move, although ambitious, makes far better sense that just shipping raw materials overseas.
Historically, Australia has been a country that has done no more than mining for raw materials rather than processing them to make valuable goods and holding a prominent role in the global supply chain of various technologies. But things are about to change, because of the trade war between China and the rest of the world. China currently controls the supply chain of batteries because they dominate the processing of the critical battery minerals. Other industrial countries such as South Korea, Japan, USA and Europe make batteries, but they rely heavily on China for those materials. If Australia could pick up that refining and processing, we would be the more reliable trading partner.
That’s the next big thing – and that’s why I am actively advocating for Australia’s battery industry to become a dominant player in producing refined battery materials. Such a move is not going to happen overnight. It requires detailed and transparent roadmaps and large investments. And at the same time, it needs consistent dialogues between the government, industries, the education sector and the research sector to ensure maximum efficiency and continuous innovation.
That’s why I’ve decided to basically get out of the lab and try to communicate the importance of moving towards a local battery supply chain. And I’m trying to communicate not only to the policymakers and industry, but also to the general public. It’s very important to me that everyone knows what an opportunity this is for our country. It’s not only about creating more wealth for Australia, it’s also about creating a new job market and fostering national pride, while we lower our emissions and minimise the impact of climate change. If we could secure a significant foothold in the global energy market, it means that we will be greatly involved in energy storage work, and that means significant growth in the engineering job market, in line with the increasing demand for energy in national growth.
But sometimes I feel that here in Australia we are not paying attention to a world that is changing before our eyes, especially in engineering sectors. We’re not good at observing and monitoring these changes so that we can adapt to them. The whole world has been moving towards the electrification of transport, for example, but we still have resistance from some policymakers here.
It’s so important that the general public knows about these changes, because at the end of the day it’s the general public that has the say. If the nation wants to reach net zero targets sooner than the government’s plan – which is 2050, not a particularly ambitious target – you’ve got to inform them about the opportunities.
Dr Mahdokht Shaibani has a PhD in mechanical engineering from Monash University. She is an energy storage researcher, inventor and solution provider. She has expertise in materials synthesis, engineering, and scale-up for next-generation energy storage systems. She was recently appointed a fellow of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science program.