Electric cars and wind turbines could be pivotal to fuelling the next outback mining boom, with resource companies and start-ups worried Australia is not making the most of a new wave of mining activity across the nation.
As scientist Ray Wooldridge tells it from his laboratory in Pine Creek, two hours south of Darwin, “lithium is one of the flavours of the moment”.
Mr Wooldridge spends his time analysing minerals being dug out of the ground by resource companies, and recently he has been studying a lot of this soft, silvery-white metal.
“It’s pretty substantial. It’s really been building up the last few years,” Mr Wooldridge said.
Lithium is piquing the interest of mining companies due to it being a key component in batteries for renewable energy storage and electric vehicles.
There are no active lithium mines in the Territory but an ASX-listed company is hoping to open the first next year.
In Western Australia, lithium is booming. In the past decade the state has gone from having just one lithium mine to seven, turning Australia into the world’s biggest exporter of the mineral.
And it is not just lithium that has seen this interest, said Gavin Mudd, an associate professor of engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne.
“There’s been an increasing demand for a lot of metals we call critical,” he said.
“That’s been driven by a lot of these rapid changes in technology we’re seeing, whether that be the uptake of renewable energy, energy storage batteries, and this new exponential growth in electric vehicles.
“It’s not boom times yet but certainly we’re seeing an evolution. Some of the traditional elements like coal are being challenged.”
But just like coal mining, many of the elements that are being dug out of the ground in Australia are being exported as a raw product to overseas markets — mostly China.
“Australia has a long history of just shipping out the raw concentrates and material and not taking advantage of value-adding,” Mr Mudd said.
“I think it would be really great to see Australia break that historical trend.”
When it comes to lithium, there are already several processing plants turning the mineral into a more developed chemical to use inside batteries, and another huge one in the works in Western Australia.
But Mr Mudd says Australia is lagging behind when it comes to adding value to other things it is pulling out the ground.
He says the reasons for this are complex, but that China has emerged as a powerplay manufacturer in this sector, which makes it difficult for smaller markets to compete with.
“It’s one of those things where governments need to think longer term than shorter term. We need to realise these industries and sectors could potentially be very, very big,” he said.
“We really have to up our game.”
On the border of WA and the Northern Territory, east of Halls Creek in the Kimberley, one resources company is trying to do just that.
Northern Minerals has been digging up a heavy rare earth dysprosium since 2017, which is used inside permanent magnets in electric vehicles, hybrid cards, wind turbines and even mobile phones.
At the moment, all of the company’s dysprosium is being exported as a raw product.
The company wants to change that by doing separation at a refinery, which would open but its market to South East Asia, Germany and the US.
Yet its director, George Bauk, says they have struggled to get funding and they have also been put off by flagged changes to Federal Government rules about research and development tax incentives.
“One of our problems is the industry is being driven by get to revenue as quick as possible. Dig it up and get it to market ASAP,” he said.
“But we’ve really got to encourage people to go downstream and create the next industry.”
The Resources Minister have been contacted about the flagged changes to research and development tax incentives, which were put on ice earlier this year.
In a statement, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said a Senate committee found that reform was needed with research and development tax incentives.
“We agreed with the committee’s recommendations regarding technical refinements, and that work is underway,” he said.
For the past few years, a start-up company called Energy Renaissance has been pitching to build the first factory in Australia that will turn lithium into batteries specifically suited to the tropics.
The company’s chair, Su McCluskey, says the lithium ion batteries can be used to store power in remote communities, mines, hospitals, aged care homes and for larger-scale electric vehicles like travelators and forklifts.
“We’ve been looking for a number of locations [for our factory] and we’re looking for the most suitable,” she said.
The company was hoping to build that factory in Darwin, but Ms McCluskey says three years after first approaching the NT Government, a site has not yet been locked in.
“We hear all levels of government talk about wanting to be able to support and encourage and provide incentives for start-ups,” Ms McCluskey said.
“We’ve seen first-hand that not only is it challenging in terms of raising the funds and doing the work, it’s also quite challenging navigating across the bureaucratic processes.”
But she is staying positive on the question of Australia capitalising on new opportunities.
“In terms of manufacturing, we’ve seen a whole amount of industries here in the past die or leave Australia. We now have the opportunity with high-tech digital manufacturing to bring that back here,” she said.
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the Government was “very interested in the idea of building batteries” in the Territory but that there was a limit to what support it could offer the company.
“This is one of those ones where it’s almost fallen to commercial negotiations about what the Government would be prepared to buy from that factory,” he said.
“We’re absolutely supportive of a battery factory being built here, but there’s a commercial dispute and I’ve been very clear with the company about the extent to which government would come in and give them taxpayer money.”
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