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21 March 2024 7 min read

Critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, and manganese, along with rare earths, support a range of sectors including in technology, defence, space, and medicine. They are also the essential elements required to build the technologies needed for the world to meet its low emissions targets. They drive technological innovation, contribute significantly to Australia’s GDP and create well-paying jobs.

A massive manganese ore ridge north of Mount Augustus, WA
A massive manganese ore ridge north of Mount Augustus, WA

Designated critical for their essential role in society, supply chain security, and the economic and national security implications of their disruption on global markets, their strategic importance shows no signs of slowing.

Growing market and Australia's opportunity

According to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2023, this growth is already being realised, with the critical minerals market doubling in size over the last five years and projected to double or quadruple by 2030.

A recent assessment by Geoscience Australia shows when it comes to critical minerals, globally, Australia is the largest producer of lithium, the second largest of zircon, the third largest of rare earths and the fourth largest of cobalt. Australia's strategic significance in the global critical minerals sector cannot be overstated, yet most of the country remains underexplored and known valuable mineral deposits remain undeveloped. To help the world reach its low-emissions goals and grow downstream industries for Australia including in refining and manufacturing, more Australian resources will be needed.

Innovation through research and development

The Australian Critical Minerals Research and Development Hub (the Hub) was developed in recognition of the critical role that science and innovation holds for Australia to solidify and fully capitalise on its aspirations to be a global clean energy supplier, and to help grow its economy.

Funded by the Australian Government, the Hub is a partnership between Australia’s leading science agencies, CSIRO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), and Geoscience Australia, along with the Department of Industry, Science and Resources.

Director of CSIRO’s Mineral Resources Business Unit and Chair of the Critical Minerals R&D Hub, Dr Rob Hough, said through collaboration the Hub would unlock new technologies, processes, and materials to drive advancements in the critical minerals sector by addressing key technical challenges.

“The Hub is playing a system coordination role – identifying and driving collaborative research relationships and opportunities to progress R&D outcomes at pace; and supporting the scale-up and commercialisation of novel technologies to unlock new projects,” Rob said.

“Targeting R&D towards the technical challenges in critical mineral exploration and production helps de-risk projects and supports the development of strategic supply chains that will sustain the global renewable energy transition.

“All three agencies have strong links into the critical minerals R&D community, and are bringing their combined connections with industry, universities, state and territory governments and international partners to coordinate R&D to support this initiative.”

Person in full PPE looking at data on a computer screen
ANSTO control system for a sulfation baking piloting kiln which is processing an Australian monazite mineral concentrate producer for the recovery of rare earths. ©  ANSTO

Focus areas

The Hub will focus on four key areas:

  1. scaling up and commercialising Australian R&D
  2. coordinating, guiding and establishing priorities for R&D
  3. connecting critical minerals projects to technical and research experts; and
  4. supporting strategic international collaboration with likeminded partners to advance R&D and support strategic supply chains.

Currently seven projects are underway, including three announced in January this year. All agencies will work together in partnership with industry and universities, with a lead agency for each project.

Critical Minerals R&D Hub Manager, Lucy O’Connor, said part of the Hub’s mission was to build a more coordinated R&D ecosystem to help prioritise research and avoid duplication.

“These projects were developed collaboratively by the three science agencies to address the priority technical challenges facing Australia that would benefit from public sector investment and aren’t expected to be resolved quickly by other market players,” Lucy said.

“Australia’s world class ESG credentials, including critical minerals, are an important part of our value proposition as a reliable trading and strategic partner, and supporting Australia’s ESG credentials is also a high priority for the Hub.”


CSIRO Mineral Resources hosts the Hub, and is one of the largest minerals research and development groups in the world with a strong track record in delivering innovation and solutions across the value chain.

CSIRO is leading a project investigating more efficient purification and processing techniques for high purity alumina, and looking at how these techniques can be applied for other critical minerals.

CSIRO is also leading another project focused on downstream value chains for metals like lithium, refractory metals, tungsten ore and rare earths, by developing the intellectual property and knowhow needed to help downstream industries produce high purity metals and materials.

According to the Australian Government’s Critical Minerals Strategy 2023-2030, focussing on downstream refining and processing, and securing a greater share in trade and investment, could generate $139.7B in GDP and add 262,600 jobs from 2022 – 2040.

Critical Minerals R&D Hub Lead for CSIRO, Dr Chris Vernon, said building downstream capabilities created more market options for Australia to sell into, more good jobs, and diversified global supply chains.

“If Australia doesn’t build these downstream capabilities, we’ll live with the consequences. World supply chains are already too concentrated in some instances to just a handful of companies, and countries,” Chris said.

“We also know there is already interest from Australian companies to value add from their waste streams, so now we need to support them with R&D to help deliver the opportunities we know are there.”

Geoscience Australia

Geoscience Australia is leading a criticality assessment project examining Australia’s export and import vulnerabilities with respect to our economy, future sovereign capabilities, and security. 

Separately, they are undertaking an assessment of potential high purity silica systems and regions to support the production, exploration and downstream industry opportunities for silicon.

[Music plays and a split circle appears and photos of different CSIRO activities flash through in either side of the circle and then the circle morphs into the CSIRO logo]

[Image changes to show text “Silicon” on a white screen, and then the image changes to show an animation of a rotating world globe, and then the animation image changes to show a dump truck]

Narrator: Silicon is one of the most abundant elements on our planet, with the most common form being silica sand or SiO2. 

[Animation images move through to show a concrete mixer truck, the sun shining on a solar panel, three computer screens, and a car moving across the screen from the left to the right]

SiO2 is a vital starting material for concrete, solar panels, fibre optics, and even aluminium alloys used in your car.

[Animation image changes to show a glowing light bulb on the left linked to a wind turbine on the right]

We need a lot of pure silicon for the energy transition especially. 

[Animation image changes to show a solar PV on the left and on the right of the screen, and text appears between: 4 terawatt hours]

The world requires 4TW hours of solar PV by 2050, making the demand even greater.

[Animation images move through to show the sun shining on solar panels, a piece of quartz rock, a lump of elemental silicon, a lump of poly silicon, a solar cell, and then a group of solar panels]

Solar panels are made from a form of silica called high purity quartz, which is first reduced into elemental silicon, then upgraded to poly silicon, cells, and then into panels. 

[Animation image changes to show symbols of the process of producing solar panels joined across the bottom of the screen and CO2 clouds appear moving up from the process chain]
This lengthy process generally produces a lot of CO¬2, and with a fragile global supply chain Australia has the chance to make a big difference.

[Animation images move through to show a world map showing the USA, and then China, and then Australia highlighted on the map]

Currently the United States supplies a lot of the quartz, while China produces the vast majority of the world’s poly silicon and solar panels.

[Camera zooms in on Australia on the map, and then symbols of quartz appear over the map, and then the symbols of quartz are replaced with symbols of solar panels]

With Australia’s access to high purity quartz, and the growing demand for solar PV, we have the potential to become an industry leader in producing clean, renewable electricity.

[Animation image changes to show a dump truck with a load of quartz in the back]

But it will take work to establish our own supply chains and ensure carbon neutrality.

[Animation image changes to show a process flow chart joining symbols of a sun shining on a solar panel, quartz, elemental silicon, poly silicon, green hydrogen, a solar cell, and a group of solar panels]

Considering new process techniques, like the use of green hydrogen to replace carbon reductants is essential. 

[Animation image changes to show the sun shining on a landscape, and then the camera zooms out to show a map Australia highlighted in a world map]

This is our chance to become a leader in green silicon and poly silicon production and in creating new industries.

[Music plays and the image changes to show text on a white screen: CSIRO, Australia’s National Science Agency]

Will you join us?

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Geoscience Australia is also leading a project which will estimate the resource potential of critical minerals like gallium, germanium and indium in Australian zinc deposits. As part of this project CSIRO is assessing the techno-economic opportunities for Australia to produce these minerals from existing operations, and ANSTO will explore the technical recovery of gallium from existing bauxite refineries.

Critical Minerals R&D Hub Lead for Geoscience Australia, Dr Rachael Morgan, said as a global leader in mineral systems resource assessments, geological processes and geochemical cycling, the agency would apply their expert knowledge to advance the opportunities for Australia’s critical minerals sector.

“In December last year we provided a mineral criticality assessment which helped inform the Australian Government’s 2023 update of its Critical Mineral List. We will build on our mineral criticality assessment capability and develop a dynamic forecasting capability for up to 10 years into the future, which can be used to inform policy, international partnerships and trade,” Rachael said.

“The Hub’s by-products project will address knowledge gaps that exist regarding Australia's potential reserves and ability to produce critical minerals like gallium and germanium, which are crucial components in technologies such as high-performance computing and optical communications.

“The silica assessment project will deliver a first of its kind mineral system model for quartz deposit formation, which focuses specifically on the key geological and geodynamic factors that lead to the formation of High Purity Quartz (HPQ) deposits, and the results will be used to generate a new national quartz prospectivity map for industry.”


Complementing the Geoscience Australia assessment of silica, ANSTO is leading a project developing processing routes for HPQ production, and the global market potential for fused quartz products, solar cell, and elemental silicon production. This project will provide access to the technologies and knowhow required for HPQ production, in particular, high temperature chlorination for all future Australian projects.

ANSTO is also leading a project looking at unlocking the full potential of Australia’s Rare Earth Elements endowment, especially from lower grade deposits, and will establish a dedicated testing facility for industry.

Critical Minerals R&D Hub Lead for ANSTO, Dr Chris Griffith, said Australia was well positioned to contribute to the diversification of the rare earths supply chain, and that the agency was well placed to bring its more than 40 years of process development expertise to support the growth of more Australian projects.

High purity Quartz Development Team in front of ANSTO pyrometallurgical piloting kiln ©  ANSTO

“Australia already has a rich endowment of conventional rare earths deposits and an established track record in processing those types of deposits,” Chris said.

“Clay-hosted and ionic adsorption deposits pose some interesting and difficult processing challenges but by developing a greater understanding of the mineralogy and processing routes required to unlock their value, Australia can tap into their higher ratios of sought after magnet metals.

“With a dedicated piloting facility for processing such deposits installed at ANSTO, Australian project developers will more readily be able to determine the suitability of their material for supply into high-tech markets.”

People can contact the Hub by email and/or register their interest via their website.

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