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First there was the gold rush, then the iron ore boom and now, the battery metals revolution.

As the world transitions from petrol cars to electric vehicles and coal-powered electricity to renewables, Australian resources are poised to play an integral role.

Western Australia is blessed with an abundance of the mineral elements required to power this growing frontier.

While much of the attention has focused – for good reason – on the lithium space, there is also a plethora of other battery minerals in Australia which industry heavyweights believe are just as exciting.

Nickel, cobalt, alumina, vanadium, graphite – all have been found in Australia.

Historically, the Australian mining sector has largely been a ‘dig-up and ship-off’ operation, choosing to send vast resources by sea to countries like China for processing.

To take the lithium space as an example, a 2018 Regional Development Australia report found Australia captures approximately 0.5 percent of lithium’s ultimate value. The remaining 99.5 per cent goes overseas.

However, government and industry are working hard to change this.

In late January, the WA Government released the Future Battery Industry Strategy and placed a strong focus on the downstream processing of precious minerals to significantly increase the end value.

One of the first initiatives of the strategy is to further develop and strengthen relationships with investors and manufacturers in global battery and electric vehicle supply chains.

At the time of the report’s release Premier Mark McGowan said the unprecedented growth of the battery industry represented a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity for Western Australia.

“Our Future Battery Industry Strategy will drive the development of the WA battery materials industry that will create local jobs, contribute to skills development and economic diversification and maximise benefits to regional communities,” Mr McGowan said.

“This is an exciting opportunity for WA to be recognised as a world-leading producer and exporter of future battery materials, technologies and expertise with huge potential for industry growth and job creation across the battery value chain.”

Additionally, the government will commit $6 million if it is successful in its bid to host the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre in Perth.

“The McGowan Government is a major supporter of the Future Battery Industries CRC bid as it will contribute industry-focussed research to Western Australian companies across the entire battery industries value chain,” Science Minister Dave Kelly said.

“The CRC will support value chain research such as manufacturing next-generation products that will bolster efficiency, reliability and safety of energy storage systems.”

Time to think big

Chief Scientist of Western Australia Peter Klinken said the strategy was a landmark document which made it clear the state was open for business and prepared to look at a new way of doing things.

“If you go back 50 or 60 years there were no mining or oil and gas industries in WA,” he said. “They were the startups of the 60s and 70s; they took the big risks and gambles and they transformed the state.

“I think we are on the cusp now of the next generation of industries and it is one unbelievable opportunity.”

Going forward, Mr Klinken said mindset was crucial and governments could play a major role by backing industry.

“Signals are really important,” he said. “I was really pleased when I saw the strategy. I think it’s terrific the state has taken a real lead in looking at the entire value chain.

“Industry will invest if they feel governments are supportive; they are less likely to invest if they feel there might be some risk.”

Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA CEO Paul Everingham said the nation was well placed to take advantage of the growing demand for electric vehicles and rechargeable batteries on many fronts.

“Western Australia and Australia, from my observations, have the safest and well-regulated mining and resource industry in the world,” he said.

“We have some of the best people in the world working with raw mineral commodities.”

Analysts have forecast demand for lithium to rise exponentially in the next decade to supply a rapidly growing electric vehicles industry which has chosen Lithium-ion batteries to power its trucks, cars and buses.

UK-based minerals research house Roskill predicts global lithium consumption will increase by 18 per cent a year up to 2026.

“Transportation and energy sectors will need to become cleaner and Li-ion batteries are currently the most suitable instrument to achieve that end,” a Roskill outlook report said.

“Energy storage systems (ESS) are predicted to grow at a similar rate to automotive applications as production costs fall and the uptake of renewable energy rises, although competition from other battery technologies could become a limiting factor.”

As a western democracy with a stable democratic government and long-standing regulatory regimes, Mr Everingham said investors could be sure their money would be protected in Australia.

“The government is creating a stable investment environment, helping get regulatory approvals in a timely and cost-effective manner and also removing barriers to entry,” he said.

With international experience to support a growing industry, Mr Everingham was confident downstream processing would be a successful venture, but said it was unlikely to go all the way to battery manufacturing.

“It will only happen if one of the global players in the battery industry like LG or Panasonic open a battery plant here for a strategic purpose,” he said.

“There’s no doubt they can open them overseas with lower overheads and lower costs of labour.

“The margins are so small at that level; most of the value has already been extracted further up in the chemical concentration process.”

Mr Klinken was more bullish on the prospect of manufacturing batteries in Australia, saying it had to at least be explored as an option.

“This is not the time to be risk-averse or timid,” he said. “It’s important to be realistic, but with an open mind.

“I think we owe it to ourselves, our kids and grandkids to explore these options really seriously.”

Mr Klinken said past failures in steel and car manufacturing industries should not act as deterrents.

“I feel like we’ve lost our confidence, we’ve lost our mojo and something like this could really galvanise not only our state but the whole nation,” he said.



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