CSIRO is looking to partner with companies which are leveraging the critical minerals industry, as Australia moves to unlock the full economic potential seen in every part of the supply chain.
“Critical energy metals present a tremendous opportunity for us to offer unique, high value products to the rest of the world,” says CSIRO’s recent report, Critical Energy Minerals Roadmap.
“Not by simply exporting raw minerals, but by upgrading our ores to metals, chemicals and alloys and in some cases finished products for niche markets. Without this, we will only capture a fraction of these trillion-dollar markets.”
Australia has designated 26 minerals such as lithium, cobalt, vanadium, titanium, graphite and rare earth elements as the critical ingredients essential to build clean energy infrastructure, technologies for aerospace and defence, as well as the electric vehicles of the future.
The global supply of critical minerals has historically been dominated by countries with increased sovereign risk such as China, Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Resource rich Australia
However, the need to decouple from traditional suppliers and secure geopolitically safe and reliable sources of critical minerals has abruptly changed the focus of the Australian mining industry, according to CSIRO’s Research Director Dr Sandra Occhipinti, who heads the mineral resources Discovery Program.
“It has been a seismic pivot; we are seeing a significant shift in exploration for critical minerals which previously may have been overlooked,” Dr Occhipinti says.
“There are rich deposits here; we have very supportive geology in Australia and extensive surveys from previous exploration which will stand us in good stead.”
Rare earths elements
Dr Occhipinti explains that rare earth element minerals can be found in mineral sand deposits, across different parts of the continent.
“They are, however, often included as tiny particles in other (fairly small) minerals, which means that we need to do a bit of science to understand how to release them and concentrate them,” Dr Occhipinti says.
"In addition, critical minerals, such as lithium, needed for making batteries for electrification are often found in coarse grained granites or pegmatites.
“We are working with companies, using hyperspectral data or radiometric data collected from spaceborne systems of air to delineate areas that may contain these deposits, where we haven’t focussed on looking for them before, and looking at new ways to delineate areas of higher prospectivity for a range of critical minerals through mapping indicator minerals in parts of the soil or weathered rock to map out possible footprints of these important deposits under the surface.”
OD6 Metals Ltd non-executive chair and co-founder, Dr Darren Holden said the company had sought out CSIRO’s advice to assist with discovery and mapping of important rare earth elements in the company’s tenements near Esperance in Western Australia.
“Developing a rare earth minerals project is complex and can be technically challenging so we’ve turned to CSIRO’s smart science and innovation to help us explore for and define a resource in our tenements,” says Dr Holden.
Dr Occhipinti said CSIRO would assist OD6 Metals by delineating the deportment or where the minerals sit in relation to each other.
“We have talked to OD6 about the potential of working with them across the value chain, and of supporting the company as they move from mining, to processing and manufacturing,” Dr Occhipinti says.
“Our achievements with OD6 Metals will have implications for other exploration companies, and that is ultimately good for our national interests.
“It’s about supporting an Australian company and at the same time, CSIRO is learning about processes and ways of delineating rare earth element deposits, so we may find some keys in looking for another deposit.
“That knowledge becomes part of Australia’s knowledge.”
Characterisation of minerals
CSIRO Science Director, Dr Louise Fisher says that CSIRO’s cutting edge Microbeam laboratories have a long history of working with industry to provide detailed characterisation and understanding of mineral samples.
“This includes high resolution micro-characterisation and mapping, using our electron microprobes, to provide better solutions to production and analytical problems,” Dr Fisher says.
Dr Fisher says CSIRO has developed novel methods to support in-situ measurement of critical metals including rare earth elements and lithium.
"The CSIRO lab team have modified and customised hardware and software to create new functionality”.
“The translation of knowledge through lab-based analysis and characterisation into exploration tools has been greatly facilitated by the emergence of a new range of rapid analysis tools that can be deployed into the field or mine site.
"Our Geoscience Research Drill Core Laboratory provides a platform to connect these METS sector tools to our broader research infrastructure.
“Adding value to our raw materials, requires us to understand those materials so we can optimise processes.
“CSIRO’s Characterisation Program continues to develop the technologies to enable this understanding, and to work with broader teams across CSIRO Mineral Resources,” says Dr Fisher.
Australia offers safe, secure supply and opportunities to value-add
Dr Occhipinti believes Australia is well-positioned to disrupt the current global supply status quo, with United States, India and the European Union turning to Australia as a trusted global supplier, citing our history as a mining superpower, along with a political and environmentally stable environment, one that can produce minerals to high standards.
“Australia can capitalise on its geology, and our international reputation that those minerals will be sourced in an environmentally and socially responsible way, within a stable governance structure,” she says.
Beyond the dig and ship model, Dr Occhipinti said Australia was also taking action to support greater development of processing and manufacturing.
“Manufacturing initiatives are connected, because if you get manufacturing happening onshore, then you also need the raw materials to support it, which feeds back into the mining industry.”
Dr Occhipinti says ultimately, to decarbonate and move away from coal, oil and gas to a truly green energy model, we are going to need to develop more mines.
“It is ironic, but our challenge is to ensure those mines are built in a responsible way, an environmentally safe way and to make sure they are socially accepted,” she says.
“We need to get the balance right, between the looming requirement for reliable sources of critical minerals, as well as ensuring we have checks and balances in place.
“Ultimately this will support the development of a robust and long-term industry, which will then underwrite the national security and economic prosperity of Australia.”