Until recently, critical minerals and rare earths were relatively unknown terms outside of niche mining quarters. Now at the close of 2020, barely a week goes by without reference to these terms and their growing importance to advanced and renewable technologies. Outgoing Head of the Critical Minerals Facilitation Office JESS ROBINSON shares

 
Portrait of Jessica Robinson

Jessica Robinson, outgoing head of Critical Minerals Facilitation Office

Rare earths and renewables

Rare earths and critical minerals such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, tungsten and nickel are essential to many of the technologies that are key to Australia’s continued prosperity and security, including high-tech electronics, telecommunications, transport and defence. 

They are also vital to renewable energy technologies that underpin global energy supplies and emissions reduction measures.

Vulnerable global supply chain

But they are highly vulnerable to supply disruption.

For many critical minerals, the world’s supply comes from geographically concentrated locations.

With the uptake in electric vehicles, battery, solar and wind technologies expected to soar over the coming decade, demand for some critical minerals will outstrip current sources of supply, creating bottlenecks and straining increasingly fragile supply chains.

Industry and governments around the world have realised the problem, and that action is needed to strengthen and diversify global supply chains.

Our security gives Australia opportunity in global market

The challenge has provided an enormous opportunity for Australia.

Australia is well known as a resources powerhouse.

Australia is also blessed with significant natural endowments of rare earths and many critical minerals deemed essential by key trading and strategic partners and organisations such as the World Bank, OECD and the International Energy Agency.

For some of these minerals, we are already producing a significant share of raw materials.

For example, Australia is the second largest producer of rare earth elements and holds high-quality deposits of both light and heavy rare earths.

We are also the world’s largest lithium exporter.

For these reasons, the Australian Government is placing significant priority on developing Australia’s full critical minerals supply potential.

Realising greater value through processing and manufacturing

Apart from exploration and extraction, Australia is keen to move up the value chain to processing, separation, refining and niche manufacturing capabilities.

This approach will not only help diversify global supply chains but will significantly increase the value of Australia’s exports and play a vital role in underpinning the growth of advanced manufacturing and niche technology capabilities in Australia.

The road to success requires significant whole-of-sector effort.

It is not enough that Australia possesses some of the best rare earths and critical minerals resources in the world combined with a highly innovative, technology advanced and efficient mining and services sector.

Infographic description: Two columns, one titled Electric vehicles and the other Batteries.

Under electric vehicle column, next to an outline of a car shape, text states: Sales are forecast to increase by at least 25%  a year over next 10 years.

Next to an outline of a magnet text states: Electric vehicles use neodynium magnets containing 30% rare earths.

Under the batteries column inside the outline of a battery shape is the text: EV batteries use lithium, cobalt and rare earths.

The last text point in the infographic states: Lithium battery demand forecast to grow by 25% per year, exceeding 1400 gigawatts by 2028.

Balancing market forces

The concentrated and opaque nature of supply-chains, marked by monopolies, market failures and price volatility, creates significant challenges for new entrants.

These dynamics make it difficult for companies to secure both project finance and supply contracts.

Australia’s Federal Government has been working to support the development of Australia’s nascent critical minerals sector for some time, including through the publication of Australia’s Critical Minerals Strategy and a Critical Minerals Prospectus in 2019 to promote Australia’s supply potential.

However, these efforts have been significantly dialled-up over 2020 with a range of important measures.

Establishing the Critical Minerals Facilitation Office

One of the most important measures was the establishment of the Critical Minerals Facilitation Office, known across the sector as the CMFO.

The CMFO opened in January 2020 with a mission to drive a coordinated, whole‑of‑government and national effort to build Australia’s critical minerals sector, and to work with the international community to diversify and strengthen global supply chains.

The complexity of the supply chain issues required deliberative, highly‑coordinated and integrated action at home and abroad.

The CMFO is pursuing a comprehensive strategy to unlock Australia’s full supply potential and support demand for Australian supply.

It is driving collective action to improve the functioning of global markets and create a level-playing field.

On the domestic front the CMFO has forged a close partnership with the sector, engaging extensively with all levels of government, industry and the research and science community.

Connecting projects with funding

The project facilitation role is helping to connect projects with potential sources of government finance, such as Export Finance Australia, Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF), the Clean Energy Finance Cooperation, and non-government finance.

The CMFO is also helping to link prospective projects with international partners, as well as supporting regulatory approvals processes.

Through the $4.5 million Critical Minerals R&D program, the CMFO is leveraging Australia’s national science capability to support downstream activities, including through:

  • partnering with ANSTO to develop more clean and efficient processes to separating rare earths
  • partnering with CSIRO to deliver an Energy Metals Roadmap to provide a blueprint for how the Australian critical minerals and technology sectors can play a leading role in underpinning the global uptake of clean and renewable forms of energy; and
  • partnering with Geoscience Australia to deliver a critical minerals online portal which will provide a publicly‑accessible database and interactive tool for investors, policy makers and geologists on Australia’s critical minerals deposits and projects.

Critical Minerals Roadmap and Future Batteries Industry

At a national-level, the CMFO is leading a National Critical Minerals Roadmap with state and territory governments to grow the critical minerals sector.

The CMFO is also supporting the work of key initiatives such as the Future Batteries Industry Cooperative Research Centre that is driving an entire batteries value chain approach to support a batteries industry in Australia.

Modernising Manufacturing Strategy

At the same time, Resources Technology and Critical Minerals Processing has been identified as one of six priority areas in the government’s new Modernising Manufacturing Strategy.

Our work at home to grow Australia’s supply potential is being matched by an ambitious international engagement agenda.

International partnerships with Australia.

Over the past 10 months we have secured strong partnerships with countries such as Japan, US, India, the European Union (EU) Commission and a number of EU Member States, with discussions also underway to lock-in bilateral arrangements with the UK and Korea.

In November 2020, Australia was also welcomed as a member of the EU, US and Japan Trilateral on Raw Materials along with Canada.

To improve governance, transparency and ethical and environmental standards for critical minerals supply chains, Australia is also playing an influential role in the development of international technical standards through our participation in the International Standards Organisation (ISO).

Despite the enormous challenges 2020 presented, with COVID-19 significantly changing our operating environment, Australia is making significant strides.

After 12 months, my time at the CMFO has come to an end.

I look back on a year of significant progress and achievement and feel positive about what the coming 12 months will bring.

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