Battery metals may be shaping up as a major new Australian industry, as innovation aims to add value and give local companies a competitive advantage on the global stage. TIM TREADGOLD reports
It is an unusual but handy comparison to picture Australia's fast-growing battery metals sector as a cooking exercise with the raw ingredients prepped, waiting for the chef to choose a recipe that will produce the best result.
In the case of battery metals, the ultimate result would be the production in Australia of long-life rechargeable batteries to power the world's growing fleet of electric vehicles, as well as the rapidly-expanding range of devices, such as smartphones and tablets.
That may happen, but a more likely development is an increase in the level to which raw materials such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, vanadium and nickel are converted into semi-and fully-finished products that are sold at a much higher price than basic raw materials to the global battery production chain.
Securing Australia's advantage
First steps to upgrade lithium, cobalt and nickel ore into more valuable forms have already been taken, now finding the best recipe is the focus of the proposed Future Battery Industry Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).
The CRC is strongly supported by industry and has been shortlisted for consideration in the 2019 round.
Bringing business, the research sector and government together is an important step in harnessing the potential of a business that is a natural extension of what Australia has been doing for some time, albeit without a formal plan to maximise the value of battery metals.
The need for a concerted effort around what could become a major new business for Australia as the world reduces its reliance on fossil fuels, is explained by the sudden acceleration of interest in batteries.
In many cases, batteries will get their initial charge of electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar farms.
Turning raw battery materials into higher value products
Mark Woffenden, chief executive of the Mineral Research Institute of Western Australia, says that Australia has most of the raw materials needed to produce batteries and is ready to take the next step and find ways to add value rather the export unfinished or part-finished products.
"We have an opportunity to align the battery metals industry and regulatory regime at the start of the expansion process," Mr Woffenden says.
"If we do that right, we should see battery metals processed locally, all the way to battery-grade material and perhaps even battery production and battery recycling."
Most battery metals exported from Australia today are in a largely unprocessed, or part-processed state, which Mr Woffenden says is a lost opportunity to add value.
Demand for energy products using new energy materials has been forecast to grow 10-fold by the year 2030, as countries seek to reduce their carbon emissions.
Australia has an abundance of minerals that are needed to fuel battery and other green energy technologies, including lithium, vanadium, nickel and cobalt.
The opportunity is for Australia to participate in all stages of the value chain for these commodities to provide supply security, quality, reliability, affordability and sustainability.
Lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel
In lithium, which is the cathode in a rechargeable battery, Australia exports a variety of material ranging from ore with less than two per cent lithium, to part-processed concentrate which grades around six per cent.
There are two lithium hydroxide plants being built in Western Australia (WA) to produce a range of value-added products, which can grade up to 99 per cent lithium for use by battery makers.
Graphite, which can be used as the anode in a rechargeable battery, is produced in a number of places around Australia but not generally to battery grade.
That said, a number of Australian companies are moving up the value chain with plans to upgrade their graphite ore to a material (spherical graphite) custom made for battery makers.
Cobalt, another important battery metal is produced in Australia, though primarily as a by-product of nickel mining. The bulk of the world's cobalt comes from the central African country of the Democratic Republic of Congo with battery makers keen to obtain more reliable supplies.
Nickel, which has been an Australian specialty since the late 1960s, is the metal undergoing the most significant change in the way it is sold. For example, BHP 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.
When the company's plans to expand exposure to the battery metals sector were first outlined, BHP estimated that demand was sufficiently strong that within five years 90 per cent of sales from its Kwinana nickel refinery would be to the battery sector.
However, producing a specific product for battery makers is only part of the challenge. Maximising quality is equally, if not more, important because the battery production process requires material of the highest purity to achieve best electricity storage quality.
BHP has worked with the CSIRO to construct a mini-plant which replicates all aspects of the final nickel sulphate plant that is under construction at Kwinana, with the aim being to extract maximum value from the process.
Apart from getting a higher price by converting nickel mined at a number of projects in WA, the work at Kwinana will give BHP greater exposure to the battery metals business, something it already enjoys with its copper production.