A message from Jens Goennemann

It’s a lament you often hear: we dig stuff up, ship it off, then buy it back later as more expensive, finished goods.

Therefore, I’m encouraged by the recent launch of the Federal Government’s Resources Technology and Critical Minerals Processing roadmap. As it points out, we have world-class reserves of critical minerals[1], though currently most primary ores are shipped overseas for processing into higher value materials – which we then buy back.

The road map supports the view that there is a real opportunity for Australia, and our manufacturers, to move up the value chain, for example, into value-added oxides, alloys, and precursor materials.

Success in a decade could see Australia develop into “a regional hub for resources technology and critical minerals processing” – with advancements in R&D and retention in intellectual capital for SMEs under its belt, and significant export volumes and value created.

Let’s look at the potential in the lithium-ion battery industry, and some of the reasons why I’m optimistic about its future.

Australia is the world leader in lithium ore exports, supplying just over half of the world’s share. Yet, we are capturing a meagre 0.53 per cent of the ultimate value of this, with over $200 billion being realised overseas in processing and manufacturing of lithium related materials and products[2].

Let’s compare the extraction stage versus the value-adding stages of manufacturing lithium batteries:

  • At the extraction stage – projections value the world market for mining and concentrating lithium at US$12 billion in 2025.
  • At the value-adding stage – the market for refining and processing is projected to be worth US$41 billion, electrochemical processing worth US$297 billion, cell production worth US$424 billion, and battery assembly worth US$1.3 trillion. Wouldn’t we want more of this?

Moves from extraction to value add are happening fast, and with the potential revenues being discussed, opportunities are now being seized along the battery value chain. Energy Renaissance (ER) has announced a $28 million factory in Tomago, which it expects will be at full production in October this year. Its reasons for Tomago are illustrative, it is close to CSIRO’s Energy Centre, the University of Newcastle, local suppliers, and a port – local smarts leading to international relevance and exports.

AMGC’s role in ER’s progress? We supported their collaborative project with CSIRO, Cadenza, and Wuxi LEAD. This involved R&D on both battery systems optimised for hot climate conditions and automating production at the new Tomago site.

We also backed VSPC, which recently patented its process for producing lithium metal-phosphate battery cathode powders. Their project developed a way to use affordable sources of iron in their lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) powders, resulting in a better product, which offers greater value.

We have also supported Feline, which is developing a heat-conquering new cell format architecture for large batteries with a high power draw, and we assisted Alpha HPA, which is commercialising a manufacturing process for high-purity alumina that is more cost effective and environmentally safer than the existing method. Global demand for HPA is exploding due to its use in battery separator sheets.

Each of the above projects also showcase the expertise of industry working closely together with Australian research institutions for commercial benefit.

Only recently Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley addressed the National Press Club and was asked about the filthiness of lithium production. Dr Foley acknowledged that this was a challenge and then pointed to 400 ARC-funded projects working on new, more environmentally benign processing methods: “very exciting work.”

“I’m pretty excited that we’re going to crack that problem, and we’re going to see metal manufacturing really turn into something which is a new industry for Australia… I know that there’s a lot of people lining up to see that come together,” she added.

Nothing to add from AMGC other than counting us in.

[1] Geoscience Australia describes critical minerals as “metals and non-metals that are considered vital for the economic well-being of the world’s major and emerging economies, yet whose supply may be at risk due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, trade policy or other factors.” https://www.ga.gov.au/about/projects/resources/critical-minerals

[2] https://www.austrade.gov.au/ArticleDocuments/5572/Lithium-Ion%20Battery%20Value%20Chain%20report.pdf.aspx