Australia stands on the cusp of a new and exciting market opportunity, with the imminent launch of the first production plant to use a CSIRO-developed low-energy method to process magnesium
There is increasing global demand for this strong, light metal, which is used in a wide range of applications across sectors like aerospace, automotive, medical and computing – and even added to give strength to aluminium cans.
And a metal like magnesium fits the brief.
This is good news for Australia.
Australian holds significant magnesite reserves
Listed on its Critical Minerals List, Australia holds significant resources of magnesite, a magnesium calcium ore used for magnesium production. This presents a big opportunity for the nation to move up a value chain, to add value to resources, and build new technology companies alongside our resources sector.
Magnium Australia, backed by both Victorian and Western Australian governments, has partnered with CSIRO to use this new process in their newly-established magnesium foundry touted to be the first-ever net zero-emission magnesium producer, and to have the lowest CO2 emissions of any metal producer worldwide.
CSIRO’s work over the past two decades on developing a more efficient magnesium production process is, in fact, rocket science, says CSIRO’s MagSonic Technical Lead Tim Barton, who has been involved in the project for more than 15 years.
“Our process uses a Laval nozzle, a key component in rocketry providing the thrust for rockets to lift from the ground, but our use - converting thermal energy into kinetic energy – is for a very different purpose,” Barton says.
The hourglass-shaped nozzle was first applied by Swedish steam-engine designer Gustaf de Laval in 1888 and is central to CSIRO’s processing breakthrough, which uses a fraction of the energy of standard magnesium metal smelting processes.
Weighing around 30 per cent less than aluminium, magnesium is found naturally as magnesium carbonate (in magnesite and dolomite rocks) or as magnesium chloride (in seawater, salt lakes and underground salt deposits.)
Australia has vast magnesite deposits, and mines and other substantial operations in Queensland and the Northern Territory mine, crush and process over 300,000 megatonnes of magnesium carbonate a year into magnesite mineral, which is typically then shipped overseas to process into magnesium.
“Like many commodities, Australia digs and ships magnesite and we don't do much value-add,” says Barton.
Most magnesium is used in an alloy with aluminium, Barton says, because in its raw form it is subject to corrosion and oxidisation; but as an alloy, it is light, strong and very pliable and around a quarter of the weight of steel, and two-thirds the weight of aluminium.
Global opportunity for supply of magnesium
Shilow Shaffier is the CEO of Magnium Australia which is in the development phase of a large-scale magnesium plant applying the patented MagSonic process - creating hundreds of advanced manufacturing jobs and providing access to huge global export opportunities.
“Australia currently ships magnesite ore to China for refining, then imports it back again for production,” Shaffier says.
“There are huge opportunities not just for Australia’s own supply, but for the global market.”
Although China produces over 85 per cent of world volumes, other producing countries (such as Russia and the USA) typically use their magnesium locally.
That leaves China supplying around 97 per cent of the world’s magnesium export market, raising concerns over the vulnerability of global supply chains.
The global market for magnesium is currently around USD $4 billion but increasing demand for this lightweight and infinitely recyclable metal means the market will grow rapidly.
“About half of the world’s magnesium goes immediately into aluminium alloys, with most of that used by the automotive industry in sheeting and other components,” Shaffier says.
Automotive alloys typically use between 1.5 to 6 per cent magnesium, he says, with no viable substitute; and electric vehicle manufacture (aiming for less weight) has increased demand.
“Without magnesium, the automotive industry as we know it would grind to a halt,” he says.
The MagSonic process lowers emission and waste, and its far more efficient, less labour-intensive method will also be cheaper to run.
“We will easily achieve economic competitiveness,” Shaffier says. “The limiting factor on magnesium uptake at the moment is simply the amount that's produced and available for global use.”
The magnesium industry has the potential for massive growth, with ongoing research into its use in batteries, in hydrogen storage, in super-conductors for electronics and in medical implants - because of its biocompatibility and bio-absorbability.
“Once magnesium becomes more abundant, it will generate its own market as there are plenty of applications,” he says.
How the MagSonic process works
In 2003, CSIRO established a project to further process magnesium downstream under the now-defunct Light Metals Flagship.
High temperature reduction of magnesia to magnesium is challenging because the element reacts with air to oxidise as it cools – a process known as reversion.
Most magnesium is currently processed using the 70-year old ‘Pidgeon’ or silicothermic reduction smelting method, a labour-intensive furnace process where dolomite is combined with various additives, generating air and land pollutants including sulphur, dioxins and other hazardous chemicals.
Every tonne of magnesium refined using the Pidgeon process is estimated to also generate between 26 and 42 tonnes of CO2.
But CSIRO scientists have developed an elegant solution - the ‘MagSonic’ process, twice as efficient as current methods and named for the Laval nozzle-enabled faster-than-sound condensation of magnesium vapour.
The process begins by heating pellets of magnesia blended with carbon, (in the form of fine graphite) in a reactor to over 1800 degrees Celsius, converting them into magnesium vapour and carbon monoxide gas.
The pressure difference draws the gas at supersonic speed through a Laval nozzle to quench the gas, - so rapidly that it forms condensed metal powder particles and minimises reversion.
The gas-powder mix is then conveyed into a cyclone where the magnesium is separated from the other major reaction product - carbon monoxide - and dumped to a collection pot.
An inert cover gas (typically argon) is used to prevent back reaction with oxygen sources until the magnesium is purified and cast into slabs.
“The technology has been many years in the making,” says Tim Barton, adding that the patented process draws on CSIRO expertise in gas-solid reaction mechanisms, computational fluid dynamics, nozzle design, powder separation and passivation (coating processed particles with a protective oxide layer) and safety of operation.
Unlike most metal refining, the process avoids using coal or iron as a catalyst so it has the potential to be classed as a net-zero carbon generator, if the furnace was powered by a renewable energy source such as green hydrogen or concentrated solar thermal technology.
“The beauty of this process is that the plant can have a much smaller footprint than other current operations,” says Barton.
The MagSonic team has set up a prototype mini-magnesium processing plant to trial key phases of the process – from the reactor to the quenching through to the gas-solid separation in a cyclone – and this prototype plant can produce up to a kilogram of magnesium in a cycle, he says.
Finding the best location for new plant setup
While Australia’s magnesite ores provide significant feedstock for the process – magnesium can also be extracted from seawater and brine, with desalination plant waste a potential source of magnesium feedstock that could deliver some real circular-economy bonuses.
“We’re undertaking pre-feasibility studies to identify the best location in Australia to produce a commercial plant,” Shaffier says.
He estimates that more than 750 jobs will be created from the initial land surveying to construction, operation, and ancillary services, and the plant will also create opportunities for small manufacturing businesses to emerge, supplying the aerospace, automotive, construction, defence and electronics industries both locally and worldwide.
There is already interest in the yet-to-be constructed plant from international entities considering the viability of building a MagSonic plant in China, UAE and the USA, Shaffier says.
“The plant can be constructed adjacent to existing magnesite deposits in regional Australia, or near other feedstock such as desalination plants; but we’re also considering co-location of energy infrastructure, transport logistics, workforce availability and so on,” he says.
Magnesium processing is also one of the few industrial processes that is immediately suitable for solar and other renewable power, he adds.
“We can power this facility down at night-time, so can actually work in those renewable cycles.”
This ‘green premium’ over the other metals is already seeing interest from companies with net-zero supply chain goals, he adds.
Things are moving fast, and Shaffier says that the plant will be producing magnesium metal by 2026, if not sooner, with the first smelter producing up to 120,000 tonnes per annum by 2027 – which will be around seven per cent of the global market at that time, he says.
Partnership with CSIRO
Shaffier – who has a background in commercialising minerals technology and is also involved in sustainable metallurgical carbon production - approached CSIRO looking for emerging technology opportunities.
CSIRO business development manager Mick Wade says that the organisation had sought expressions of interest from a number of potential partners for MagSonic technology, undergoing a transparent selection process before signing an exclusive licensing agreement with Magnium.
“CSIRO has about eight research commercialisation pathways, but for this technology we were looking for a real partnership rather than a hands-off relationship,” he says.
Shaffier says that his partnership with CSIRO has been exceptional. “We have an open and collaborative relationship, working through issues together and meeting at least weekly.”
Tim Barton agrees. “We have a very close partnership with Magnium and we are 100 per cent committed to support their commercialisation goals, to scale up and produce magnesium in Australia,” he says – adding his part in this process mostly involves technology transfer."
Several CSIRO staff who worked on the MagSonic process have transferred across to now work for Magnium.
“CSIRO’s Light Metals Flagship had the foresight to set up a project like this 20 years ago, and as we go into an era with some sovereign risk issues around certain metal supply, we are on the cusp of a major new local industry,” says Barton.
Shaffier says that the “sky’s the limit” with magnesium production and that Australia’s ability to provide a sustainable product will have a big global impact.
“This technology is groundbreaking, and has the potential to change the way the world makes metal,” says Shaffier.