Western Australian Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken believes the time is now for battery metals.

Speaking to National Mining Chronicle about the advanced materials sector in WA in relation to the global battery and technology market, Professor Klinken said the state had an opportunity needed to act.

“We have a unique window of opportunity to make a significant move in this sector, but that window is closing,” he said.

This window of opportunity is closing because there are other countries around the world, such as Chile and Argentina, that are really active in this space.

“They are getting their policies and regulations calibrated to take advantage of this market,” Professor Klinken said.

“They see this as a really huge opportunity; we cannot afford to sit on our hands, in my view.”

Over recent years lithium ion batteries have taken the world by storm. The reasons for this popularity are easy to see; it is very efficient at what it does, it is lightweight and its storage capabilities are great.

Despite lithium being the shining star in these batteries, they simply would not work without the other advanced materials that make them up.

“The blending of these batteries is where the real productivity is seen; without the nickel, the cobalt, all of the other components that make up these batteries, they simply would not work,” Professor Klinken said.

“There will be the next generation of batteries that will go beyond lithium, but the next generation will probably still need a number of resources found right here in WA.”

There are currently a number of uses for lithium batteries, and this number is surely set to grow; demonstrated, symbolically if nothing else, when Tesla CEO Elon Musk fired a lithium-powered Tesla Roadster into space in February.

It is no secret Mr Musk plans to start a human colony on Mars, but there is a large number of hurdles to cross before that happens, one of which is the sheer distance and time it would take to travel to the red planet.

“Space is a potential big market for batteries because although a number of the satellites and vehicles have solar panels to generate energy, this needs to go into batteries to store as much energy as possible,” Professor Klinken said.

“It’s not like you can just pop to a station to refuel any time soon.”

Back on terra firma and Professor Klinken envisions a large number of other uses for battery technology. He said the attraction of cordless technology was increasing all the time and that battery technology was importantly linked to renewables, an area WA was already leading the way on.

“The uptake of solar power in Perth in particular, but WA as a whole, has been phenomenal,” he said.

“It’s going to be a really interesting challenge to see how the grid handles the increasing amount of solar, as people start to buy more batteries because the price is coming down.

“It just makes so much sense to make our own batteries, especially for regional and remote communities.”

This is because, apart from WA, there are very few places in the world that have all the key components and resources to manufacture them.

Not only that, but WA has a very healthy track record of being able to get those resources ready for use. It is very adept at extraction, crushing and shipping the materials.

The question needs to be asked then, if WA has a local need for manufacturing its own batteries and can prepare the materials for manufacture, why isn’t there more activity around the manufacture of batteries?

For Professor Klinken it boiled down to mentality. He said the biggest arguments against manufacturing locally were the implied high labour cost and the remoteness of WA.

“I personally don’t buy either of these arguments,” he said.

“A lot of the manufacturing process these days is automated; you can’t tell me our robots would be a lot more expensive to use than anyone else’s robots. 

“We are also not as remote as most people think, especially when you realise in our time zone we have approximately 60 per cent of the world’s population.

“Plus, we have two companies in WA that are genuine high tech exporters of manufactured products; Austal manufactures ships and is able to supply the US navy, and Pfizer, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, has a manufacturing plant right here in WA.

“If these two companies can do it successfully, why can’t other industries do the same?”

Due to the wide-ranging potential for the use of batteries and the head start WA seemingly has on the competition, Professor Klinken said it would be catastrophic if the state didn’t closely examine how to participate in this market.

He said the offshoot potential available would far outweigh the potential risks involved and the whole market needed one or two brave companies to take a shot at manufacturing batteries here.

“Success breeds success,” he said.

“There have been recent reports, such as the AMEC lithium report – a Lithium Industry in Australia – that showed we are really good at the front end, but we need to start exploring other opportunities.

“You don’t get many opportunities in your lifetime to be at the epicentre of where the world is headed, blessed with all these resources.

“We need to at least have a good hard look at putting it all together here and I think the spin-offs would be enormous.

“If we could set that up and be successful, we would be seen from a distance and overseas as a global hub that is serious about high tech manufacturing. People are going to want to come here and that will only increase the amazing work being achieved.”