Australia has the ingredients to be a leader in the world’s energy transition, but it can also be compared to a well-stocked kitchen in need of a chef with a recipe to combine the raw materials in a practical and profitable way.
Across regional Australia are world-class deposits of the minerals and metals needed in a range of new and emerging technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and batteries which first generate and then store the electricity to replace fossil fuels.
Lithium, nickel, copper, cobalt, rare earths, manganese and cobalt are readily available in Australia and already exported as partly unprocessed ore, in a concentrated form, or as metal.
Australian opportunity for a manufacturing industry producing clean energy tech
In the longer term, a national manufacturing industry supporting clean energy technologies would add value to our raw materials production to create a new industry for Australia and position the country as a significant force in clean and renewable energy.
At the moment we have many of the raw ingredients for this vision, but we need a technically and commercially viable pathway to build sustainable manufacturing options – a critical role for the R&D community to drive innovation in partnership with industry.
Multiple factors are driving innovation for the national energy transition with the CSIRO active on a number of fronts in pure research and working with private sector participants in looking for ways to harness natural resources in a way that creates business opportunities and new-technology jobs.
Harnessing Australia's natural resources potential
Chris Vernon, senior principal scientist at CSIRO’s Waterford laboratories in Perth, said that Australia was uniquely placed at a special time in the evolution of global energy production.
"There are a number of interconnected drivers behind the shift to clean energy production and storage, with Australia at the point where those drivers intersect," Vernon said.
"There is the driver of sovereign capability, and there is the driver of international demand to ensure a supply of metals critical to a future powered by new sources of energy."
"What's needed now is the driver which will come from a combination of government encouragement and private sector investment."
Vernon acknowledged that Australia had found itself in a similar position during earlier shifts in demand for raw materials and efforts to add value to minerals exported in an unprocessed form.
Major commercial deployments pose significant risks
In Australia, billions of dollars have been invested in various technology pathways that ultimately failed including, attempts to convert iron ore into a semi-finished product such as Hot Briquetted Iron (HBI), or pig iron through the Hismelt process. Investments in magnesium and germanium production have similarly failed.
In battery metals, Australia is already one of the world’s biggest exporters of lithium ore upgraded to a concentrate while a number of projects to produce semi-finished lithium as carbonate or hydroxide are in different stages of construction.
Nickel, another key battery metal, is blazing a value-added trail, largely through innovation and investment at BHP Group's Kwinana nickel refinery which, for the past 50 years has supplied nickel powder and briquettes to be used in making stainless steel, and is increasingly shifting to being a supplier of nickel sulphate for battery makers.
Regional development opportunities in resources
It's the close proximity of the nickel refinery and lithium processing plants which makes Kwinana one of the logical locations in Australia for a battery precursor production project with other centres having the right combination to be a "tech-metal hub", including Townsville in Queensland and Parkes in NSW.
"Making it happen is the challenge we face," Vernon said.
"We've reached this point in the past with 2012 a prime example because there was a push then to get Australia's rare earths out of the ground to meet the demands of developing technologies.
"The big hole in that concept was that no-one could get their rare earth mine funded and even if they did there were limited markets apart from selling it into China.
"So, the important thing we have to do in rare earths is create a value chain that gets us from the mine to a value-added state, otherwise it has to be sold to the Chinese rare earth processing industry."
Value-add future industry
Vernon said government leadership was important at this stage of Australia's evolution as a supplier of value-added battery and new technology materials even if that meant picking winners from the many emerging opportunities.
"Whether government wants to take that step is a strategic question in the context of developments in international affairs and the urgency in some countries, such as the U.S., to secure a reliable future supply of critical minerals to manage energy transition," he said.
"But it's not just a challenge for government. Large parts of the private sector are involved or keen to be involved in the shift to a future based on renewable energy and new technologies.
Lowering carbon footprint
"We have big mining companies saying they want a much lower carbon footprint. We have transport companies saying they will do what they can to become zero emitters, and we have banks and investors concerned about the economic effects of climate change."
Vernon said Australia’s potential to be a global leader in the energy transition starts with its geological endowment.
"We have all of the minerals to make into the metals required for the energy transition and that's not only some reasonably advanced rare earth projects to make magnet metals but we've also got nickel, copper, cobalt, vanadium, manganese and lithium needed to make batteries."
Missing from Australia's drive into a new-energy future is a big internal market which is an advantage held by countries such as Germany, China and the U.S.
"Making electric vehicle (EV) batteries in Australia for shipment to Europe or the U.S. sounds a bit of a stretch at this stage of energy transition," Vernon said.
"What doesn’t seem like a stretch is making precursor materials which are a little bit further along the value chain for use in batteries. Examples are the cathode and anode precursors".
Vernon described a cathode precursor as an engineered material created by mixing pure nickel sulphate, pure cobalt sulphate, pure manganese sulphate, in the right ratios.
"It's a similar story with battery anodes which, at the end of the process are simply grey powders which are turned into sophisticated batteries," he said.
"None of this is beyond Australia as a way of adding significant value to a raw material."
Vernon said plans were already being made by a consortium of Australian companies through the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre, to pilot processes for cathode precursor, and another Australian project, to formulate anode precursor.
Getting the chemistry right is one test for a future battery products industry, convincing investors that the there is a business case to justify development is a second challenge especially as the science behind battery design is not yet settled.
For Australia, however, whatever the preferred combination of metals in a battery is largely irrelevant because almost everything required is mined locally and available "off the shelf".
What's needed is government encouragement, banks and investors prepared to back a new industry, and a recipe book to create Australia's battery metals kitchen.