As EVs drive a mining revolution, will Australia become a battery minerals superpower?
By Sourced Externally
August 25, 2022
A modification to the way electric cars are charged could allow them to get 90 per cent battery from nothing in just 10 minutes. A standard approach would take half an hour
Allison Britt offers a simple analogy to explain the opportunity at Australia’s feet.
“If you want to compare an EV battery to cooking, we have all the ingredients to make a delicious cake in our pantry,” Ms Britt, a director at Geoscience Australia, said.
“And the challenge for Australia … is ‘Do we want to continue doing what we’ve been doing … selling some of those ingredients to cake makers overseas, or do we want to take that next step?’
“‘Maybe make the cake batter here in Australia and then send it out for cooking, or do we want to go the whole hog and invest in a new oven and make and bake the cake ourselves right here in Australia?’
“That’s where we are with the battery situation right now.”
Across the world, the uptake of electric vehicles, or EVs, is accelerating as car makers and consumers embrace the technology and governments seek to decarbonise transport.
In Europe sales of EVs have overtaken diesel vehicles — a situation seemingly unthinkable a few years ago.
EVs made up 20 per cent of sales in Europe in 2021, 15 per cent in China and 5 per cent in the US, with expectations of big jumps again this year, according to Bloomberg.
The trend has even seen car manufacturers directly investing in mining companies to shore up their access to essential battery minerals.
This latest vehicle transition looms as the biggest change to personal transport since the internal combustion engine replaced the horse-drawn carriage.
The key question is: Will Australia capitalise on its natural resources advantage to become a superpower in the EV revolution?
‘Amazing natural endowment’
Australia is definitely at the head of the pack when it comes to mineral endowment, according to Ms Britt.
While lithium is the best known of the critical minerals — lending its name to the high-performance batteries typical of EVs — a slew of other materials are also required.
Among them are nickel, cobalt, manganese, vanadium, zinc and copper — all of which are found in abundance in Australia.
“We’re really lucky … we have the most amazing natural endowment of all of these battery minerals,” she said.
“In fact, when it comes to world rankings, we’re in the top 10 for all of them.
“And for most of them, we’re even in the top three.”
Australia’s miners have wasted little time capitalising on the EV transition, which is fuelling huge demand for the minerals used in the batteries required to power the transition.
From exploration minnows to the world’s biggest diversified miner, BHP, everyone is looking for a piece of the action.
Commodity giant Glencore is in the thick of the action, operating battery minerals mines across the country.
At its Murrin Murrin mine, about 800km north-east of Perth in Western Australia’s Goldfields, the Swiss-Anglo company is producing nickel and cobalt to help feed demand from automakers.
The mine’s cobalt output alone accounts for about 5 per cent of global supply, which is dominated by the Democratic Republic of Congo despite concerns about worker safety and environmental standards.
Demand expected to soar
Glencore Nickel vice president Jason Cooke says demand for battery minerals appears to be headed in one direction.
“By 2050, we see demand for nickel and cobalt quadrupling from today and we also see the need for supply of copper and zinc to double by 2050,” Mr Cooke said.
“So, basically, we see strong demand for all of those minerals in the future.”
According to Mr Cooke, big investments are going to be needed to ensure supply can keep pace with the rapidly increasing use of battery minerals.
Although he said there were no specific plans, he confirmed Glencore was looking for ways to boost supply through upgrades to its existing operations or the possible acquisition of new ones.
“We are interested in continuing to expand our footprint in the minerals markets,” he said.
“We are always looking for opportunities — new opportunities but also opportunities for our existing operations.”
Along with battery minerals, EVs are also driving demand for other resources, such as rare earths.
In a bid to meet the growing demand, rare earths miner Lynas Corporation is spending more than $1 billion expanding its Australian footprint.
On the outskirts of the historic WA mining town of Kalgoorlie, the ASX-listed firm is building a new cracking and leaching plant to help handle waste no longer wanted in Malaysia, where Lynas has its processing operations.
Added to this is a $500 million investment the company recently announced for its Mount Weld mine near Laverton, about 950km north-east of Perth.
Big investments needed
Lynas chief executive Amanda Lacaze says that even though rare earths are not used directly in the batteries, they are used in much greater quantities in EVs compared with conventional cars.
“You might have a couple of kilos in an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle,” Ms Lacaze said.
“In a really optioned-up electric vehicle, you may have four to five kilos of rare earths in that vehicle.”
Until recently, the EV industry formed only a relatively small part of Lynas’s business, but Ms Lacaze said it was now expected to become a major customer.
And she expected outsized demand for Australia’s production of the minerals required for the switch to EVs, arguing its reputation as a stable and democratic supplier would be a major advantage in an era of growing geopolitical unease.
“There are various forecasts for how fast the market is going to grow,” Ms Lacaze said.
“In the industry we typically talk about it doubling by 2030. Some of the external commentators are throwing around numbers like three times or five times.
“What is certain is it’s growing fast and it is growing sooner than most of us forecast.”
Such is the growth of the industry, EV producers the world over have been knocking on Australia’s door looking to secure supplies of raw materials.
In the past year, leading EV maker Tesla has struck deals with miners ranging in size from behemoths such as BHP to small players including Liontown Resources, which is developing a lithium mine in WA and has also signed an agreement with Ford.
Race on for raw materials
For David Southam, the outgoing chief of nickel miner Mincor, the competition for supplies is having dramatic implications.
“To the point where you’re having car manufacturers invest in mining companies,” Mr Southam said.
“Normally, they’re so many steps removed from sourcing the raw material. But there’s a race on for those raw materials.
“You’ve seen Ford Motor Company for instance invest into Liontown and provide debt financing for a lithium development company.
“You would never see Ford investing in mining companies before. So, there’s been a real learning curve … they’re coming right upstream to secure those supplies.
“That is a fundamental change.”
Shannon O’Rourke, the head of the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre in Perth, said there was understandable buzz surrounding the battery mineral industry in Australia.
Australia, he said, currently accounted for about 50 per cent “of the total amount of the minerals required for the battery value chain”.
“Australia’s very uniquely positioned in this space,” Mr O’Rourke said.
“No other country has the same resources that Australia has. No other country has the same amount of production that we have.
“We really are a minerals powerhouse.”
Despite this, Mr O’Rourke said it was vital for Australia to not lose sight of the opportunities available to countries which could not only mine the raw materials, but, more importantly, add value to them.
He said the economic and strategic returns available to jurisdictions which could partly or wholly produce the batteries for EVs were orders of magnitude higher than those available to the miners.
Time running out to add value
Unlike other raw commodities such as wheat or iron ore, Mr O’Rourke said battery minerals could be turned into “very high value products” at the first stage of processing.
“We think that time is running out for Australia to play a leading role in the battery value chain,” he said.
“By 2030, we expect there to be a lot of consolidation in the industry.
“There’s a lot of competition from international countries that are looking to capture this value for themselves.
“And it really is a race – Australia needs to move fast and move decisively to capture this value in the industry.”
Ms Britt, from Geoscience Australia, echoed these comments.
“We have enormous mineral endowment and the ongoing geological potential for marvellous new discoveries,” she said.
“We have some companies taking the next step down the supply chain and value-adding by making battery precursor materials.
“And then we have this tantalising potential to develop our own domestic EV battery manufacturing sector right here in Australia in the coming years.”