Crucial time for Australia to capitalise on burgeoning critical minerals sector

Australia is home to many of the elements the world needs to make advanced technology such as smartphones, computers, solar panels, batteries, and electric vehicles (EVs).

According to the Department of Industry, Science and Resources, Australia is already a world-leading resource exporter and supplies many countries with high quality, ethically sourced minerals using environmentally sustainable practices.

Australia has the world’s largest resources of rutile (titanium), zircon (zirconium), and tantalum, is the world’s top producer of lithium, rutile, and is the second largest producer of zircon and rare earth elements.

In addition, the country’s resources of critical minerals like antimony, cobalt, lithium, manganese ore, niobium, tungsten and vanadium, rank in the top 5 globally.

Yet, as discussed at a recent WIMARQ Gold Coast and Austex Resources Critical Minerals lunch, Australia has potential for more undiscovered minerals.

Women in Mining and Resources Queensland (WIMARQ) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to connecting, nurturing, and supporting women to achieve their goals within the Queensland mining and resources sector and to influence improvements in gender diversity and inclusion outcomes through our thought leadership reference group.

Addressing attendees at the lunch, Gold Coast-based critical minerals company QEM (ASX:QEM) Communications Director Joanne Bergamin, who is also founding head of the Gold Coast group of WIMARQ, said Australia’s, and indeed Queensland’s rich natural endowment of critical minerals is one of the largest in the world.

She noted that recently, CRU Group’s forecasts for demand for vanadium redox flow batteries, which will become a centrepiece of energy storage applications, will be much faster than the International Energy Agency’s estimates.

Bergamin said: “By 2040, CRU thinks one-fifth of cumulative battery storage demand will be serviced by vanadium redox flow, with the proportion of the steel hardening agent that goes into the battery space rising from just 2% today to more than half inside less than two decades.

Estimates of the value in processing Australian minerals into battery materials and batteries keep rising every year. This is an opportunity Australia and especially Queensland (where our vanadium deposits are especially suited to the battery industry) needs to accelerate now.”

Utilising innovation

Bergamin said as such, it was important that conversations in the industry start around supply and demand in order to capitalise on the unique opportunity to secure the state’s competitive advantage, and to utilise innovative thinking to become a leading supplier to meet Australia’s and the world’s critical minerals needs.

Also addressing the attendees at the critical minerals lunch was Kate Dickson, who has a strong mining and business background in stakeholder engagement, strategy, and advocacy and is Strategy and Stakeholder Development Manager at Pure Battery Technologies.

Dickson was the major driver behind securing at least $10m state government funding for a mineral processing demonstration facility in Townsville in conjunction with several emerging vanadium companies, the QRC and the QEC.

She said it was important that companies such as Pure Battery Technologies continue to roll out their technology sooner rather than later.

According to Dickson, Pure Battery Technologies is providing an environmentally superior technology driven solution to help mining companies process their NMC products onshore through the WA pCAM hub.

“PBT’s approach is smart, simple and clean and will make a real and lasting difference to the critical minerals industry in Australia.”

Helen Degeling, who is a PhD qualified geologist with nearly 20 years’ experience in industry, academia, and government, provided some insight on the state government’s perspective on critical minerals.

you don’t have to be an economist to know that the solution won’t come down to one deposit, one commodity or one company

Degeling has worked as an exploration geologist and exploration manager in gold and base metals throughout Western Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland, and said with the strong imperative for decarbonisation, action on climate change, and diversification of a state economy dependent on fossil fuels, “you don’t have to be an economist to know that the solution won’t come down to one deposit, one commodity or one company”.

“There will be a spectrum of development opportunities, almost as broad as the entire periodic table. And it’s our job, at GSQ, to see those opportunities coming, and to help position government, industry, and the community to make them a reality.”

The future is collaborative!

According to Degeling, there are plenty of opportunities for mining companies to capitalise on the burgeoning critical minerals sector, particularly if there is a collaborative approach.

“To set the scene, the resources sector in Australia is regulated at state level. Each state has its own geological survey to support new exploration and development and help to generate investment interest in the upstream end of the sector. The Queensland Geological Survey has done that quite successfully for over 150 years.

Deal

During that time, we’ve seen a long lived and strong focus on traditional commodities, such as gold, copper, lead and zinc, and of course coal. More recent decades saw a boom in gas exploration and production. However, as we all know, and it’s why we’re here today, modern trends towards electrification, more complex technologies, geopolitics and now the strong need for decarbonisation and battery energy storage have seen a huge shift in focus towards what we call critical minerals.

What we’re finding is that the opportunity is there. Vanadium, cobalt, rare earths – these things occur in abundance in Queensland. Exploration and discovery isn’t necessarily the problem. Rather, it’s the downstream where blockages and hurdles are found. Metallurgy for rare earths, for example, is a real problem. Cobalt is similarly afflicted, being locked up in pyrite throughout the northwest minerals province. And vanadium is a good example of a situation that is actually typical across the entire critical mineral resources community – that of junior companies with great assets but not enough individual capital to build an industry. 

“What we’re finding is that the opportunity is there. Vanadium, cobalt, rare earths – these things occur in abundance in Queensland”

And this is where government can step in – federal or state, but in this case Queensland.

Degeling added that since critical minerals are, as a generalisation, dominated by the junior end of the market, there is a strong role for government in supporting the development of common user infrastructure. Whether that be at demonstration scale, such as the vanadium facility that will be built in Townsville, or production scale, “there is a real common-sense approach around the creation of critical mineral processing hubs, and perhaps ultimately, even manufacturing hubs”.

“The future is collaborative.”

Improving the gender balance

Manager of the metals and alloys section of the Australian Government’s Critical Minerals Office Julia Eecen, said as demand soars for critical minerals, there is scope for mining companies to improve the gender balance in Australia’s resources sector.

“Work to improve the underrepresentation of women has been ongoing for decades, but we have a long way to go. In 2022, women made up only 12% of the global mining workforce. 

While female participation in Australia’s mining and resources sector fares slightly better at around 19%, I think we can all agree this figure is too low. Why does this matter for Australian businesses? Diverse teams are more productive and creative. Increased participation of women enhances economic results. It leads to better environmental performance, more opportunities for innovation, improved safety outcomes and stronger community relationships.

There is no easy answer or quick fix solution to this issue. However, … there are so many great role models for women at all levels.”

Mining is key to decarbonisation

Eecen added that the world will not achieve its energy transformation goals without mining.

The transition to net zero emissions is a challenge, but also an enormous opportunity for the resources sector and the workforce it supports, she said.

In particular, Eecen noted that Queensland has a strong offering in critical minerals with vanadium, nickel, and cobalt deposits spanning across the North West Minerals Province, tungsten in the far north, and existing processing and manufacturing capabilities in the regions.

“The government is making substantial investments to develop Australia’s critical minerals sector and value-added capacity”

“The government is making substantial investments to develop Australia’s critical minerals sector and value-added capacity. In the October Budget the government allocated $50 million for an Australian Critical Minerals R&D Hub to help unlock our nation’s critical minerals potential.

The Hub will bring together Australia’s world-leading government science agencies to address strategic technical challenges. The government is also investing $50 million to the Critical Minerals Development Program for competitive grants to support early and mid-stage critical minerals projects. 

This funding builds on the $50 million recently committed to 6 key projects across Australia as part of tranche one of the program, leveraging over $143 million in private sector co-investment.”

The CMO plays a crucial role in facilitating the development of Australia’s critical minerals sector, representing and advocating for the sector internationally, and providing strategic policy advice to the government.

Write to Adam Orlando at Mining.com.au

Images: Supplied & iStock
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Written By Adam Orlando
Mining.com.au Editor-in-Chief Adam Orlando has more than 20 years’ experience in the media having held senior roles at various publications, including as Asia-Pacific Sector Head (Mining) at global newswire Acuris (formerly Mergermarket). Orlando has worked in newsrooms around the world including Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and Sydney.