Advances in new technology are driving forces for change in mining, and the impact is two-fold: changing the way we mine, while propelling significant shifts in the metal market. JONATHAN LAW writes

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Jonathan Law, Director of CSIRO Mineral Resources

Jonathan Law, Director of CSIRO Mineral Resources

Disruption is happening all around us. New sensors and digital technologies, advances in renewable energy, artificial intelligence and automation are all changing the face of mining, while simultaneously shifting demand in the metal commodity market it serves. And, the landscape is changing fast.

Growing populations (driving volume growth) and changing technology (driving metal usage patterns) are both important forces for change. These pressures are also playing out in an increasingly demanding social, ethical and environmental context.

But, there is also significant inertia in the system – resisting change are well established mining and processing operations that are tied to major investments built on stable and traditional technologies.

Combining shifts in technology, new market opportunities and inbuilt industry inertia provides a perfect opportunity for disruption by those willing and able to challenge the status quo.

In this edition of resourceful, we focus on the impact of technology shifts on metal demand and how processing innovations are transforming resources into valuable materials and products to give producers – and Australia – a competitive edge.

A growing battery metal market

Smaller volume metals like vanadium, lithium and rare earths, together with other mined products like graphite and silica for the battery and electronics industries, are predicted to grow as high as 50 per cent annually by the mid to late 2020s. There are currently two lithium hydroxide plants being built in Western Australia to produce a range of value-added products for use by battery makers.

High tech metal applications often have strict specifications linked to their performance, and while meeting these criteria is challenging, it adds significant value to the bulk raw materials.

Even traditional bulk commodities are experiencing significant market shifts in response to changing metal use. Copper is in higher demand for electric cars, consumer products, and renewable energy infrastructure is growing rapidly.

Similarly, refined nickel products required by the battery industry are driving value-added product development.

BHP's Nickel West recently announced the successful demonstration of their nickel sulphate process with CSIRO in Perth and is enjoying such strong demand from battery makers for nickel sulphate that it is likely to overtake demand from stainless steel-makers who have been the traditional market for Australian nickel.

Ensuring Australian resources are competitive

Here at CSIRO, we take an integrated value chain approach to ensure Australia is at the forefront of technology trends. We're helping to keep Australian resources competitive in global markets, in order to leverage our nation's outstanding resource endowment to deliver long term commercial opportunities.

Security of metal supply is also critical. Australia is well regarded as a reliable provider of strategic metals with great opportunity to grow the range of commodities and market share. In the relatively small volume, high value tech metal markets, green and ethical credentials and a stable supply can out-perform price – with manufacturers looking to their product bands and supply security.

We're working with a range of different producers on solutions to unlock and add value to a range of key commodities.

For example, with TNG – a local strategic metals developer – we improved their vanadium process at pilot scale to help develop a new mine project. We also worked with Kibaran Resources on a faster, more environmentally-friendly approach to graphite purification that could be deployed in deposits around the world.

These are practical examples of why Australian resources can, and should be, a cornerstone of Australian innovation opportunities in a rapidly changing world.

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