Not for the first time, “the lucky country” is positioned to capitalise on the status backhandedly bestowed by Donald Horne.
Australia is geologically blessed with minerals that India has earmarked as critical, such as nickel, vanadium, titanium, lithium and rare-earth elements. As India embarks on an energy transition, it is looking to safeguard against uncertainty in the global supply of these minerals.
In May 2022 in Tokyo the Quad nations – the US, Japan, India and Australia – finished mapping the capacities and weaknesses in supply chains. That summit was Anthony Albanese’s first as Prime Minister.
Two months earlier, the India-Australia Critical Minerals Research Partnership had been established, with CSIRO awarded about $12 million to lead Australia’s contribution. India’s desire to rely less on China for supply and processing coincides with a forecast increase in demand for critical minerals in line with global trends.
A growing need
In a country that in 2020 unveiled the largest stadium in the world – the 132,000-seat Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, where a crowd cheered then-US President Donald Trump’s attempts to pronounce the names of Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli – there is a growing push for self-reliance.
The Make in India strategy and Atmanirbhar Bharat, the government’s industrial self-sufficiency and growth program, are emblematic of a country that sees itself emerging as a manufacturing hub.
The Indian government has adopted a renewable energy and battery storage target of 175 gigawatts by 2022, and 500GW by the end of the decade. By that time, the country aims also to have 30 per cent of vehicles powered by electricity.
India’s High Commissioner to Australia Manpreet Vohra says his country has already begun a transition that will require a secure, reliable source of critical minerals.
“We already have a fair amount of our energy mix coming from the renewable sector, particularly solar and wind. And so the requirement for critical minerals is critical, indeed, for India,” His Excellency says.
“We are convinced that what is needed for around-the-clock dispatch of renewable energy is large battery storage.”
As a study of scale, consider the renewed media deal for cricket’s Indian Premier League. The broadcast rights for the next five years will be shared between Disney and Reliance Industries and are worth almost $A9 billion.
With a viewership in the hundreds of millions, the league generates endless streams and highlights for viewing on mobile phones, which require “battery minerals” such as nickel, lithium and cobalt. All are produced in Australia, with the potential for more.
Mr Andrew Jenkin has been to India six times, a trip he says he has been "lucky enough" to make in previous roles.
He knows he will soon increase that tally as CSIRO’s Research Program Director, Mineral Processing, as part of the countries’ critical minerals partnership.
He is also adamant about Australia’s potential as a producer and, further down the value chain, a processor of critical minerals.
“The analysis we see is often a bit biased and I’d be interested to hear what Canada have to say,” Mr Jenkin says.
“But if you straw-polled experts around the world, I’d be really surprised if we weren’t number one on the vast majority of lists.”
With a vast land mass, geology that is conducive to minerology and an advanced extraction industry, Australia is positioned, says Mr Jenkin, to reap the benefits of being the friend India wants.
Western Australia dominates the nation’s known critical mineral resources, but there are deposits in all other states and territories.
The start of a partnership
Mr Jenkin is recruiting people and scouting projects and investment opportunities within CSIRO for the new partnership from across its mining, energy and manufacturing teams.
He is also working on identifying key contacts in the Indian Ministry of Mines, the nation’s science body CSIR, and top-tier Indian universities.
Top of about 20 projects on Mr Jenkin’s radar is a novel process devised in Perth’s CSIRO Waterford facility to treat titanium and vanadium ores where they coexist.
The centre’s funding may afford researchers the opportunity to build a pilot plant and scale up their efforts.
Serendipitously, titanium and vanadium are on India’s wishlist of critical minerals. The method’s end application could be a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way to process both metals.
The “holy grail”, says Mr Jenkin, is to use every part of what is extracted in critical mineral processing and to minimise the environmental footprint of the entire mineral and metal supply chain.
Shipping anything across the world adds to emissions and there is, it can be argued, a moral imperative for a developed country to strip critical minerals out as close to the source as possible and deal with any waste and low value products there.
It is an opportunity that Mr Jenkin is confident can be met by both countries in the years to come.
“Both countries have so much to gain by collaborating on critical mineral supply chains and so much to give in support of global emission reduction efforts.” Mr Jenkin says.
“But critical minerals are complex and our research and development efforts are going to be important for the entire world to increase supply sustainability.