Western Australia has taken another step down the lithium value chain, focusing on stages beyond the extraction of the diverse mineral.

The Federal Government is supporting a $53 million industry-backed research hub named the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), to be hosted by Curtin University, with the aim of placing Australia on the map as a global leader in the extraction, manufacture and supply of batteries.

Funding for the CRC includes $25 million from the Federal Government and $28 million from industry and research partners, including $6 million from the WA Government. A further $82 million in kind has also been committed by participants in the centre.

WA Minister for Mines Bill Johnston said a shift from processing minerals to a chemical industry would set a pathway for Australia to go further down the value chain.

“If you set up a battery factory in Australia tomorrow, you would have to import every single component,” he said.

“If we’re genuinely going to capture the best value out of these projects, we need to move now into the chemical processing of lithium and other materials.”

Mr Johnston was optimistic about the potential for intellectual property development.

“In the new world of industry, it’s the ideas as much as the artefacts that are valuable,” he said. “This means we’re getting in on the ground level of creating new ideas here in Australia and Western Australia, so the intellectual property that’s applied around the world will come from us.”

Future Battery Industries CRC CEO Stedman Ellis said it was evident Australia had real strengths in mining, refining and research, which provided a solid foundation for advancing to the pilot and industrial-scale production of cathode precursors and anode active materials.

“We have an abundance of the minerals required for meeting the global demand for batteries,” he said.

“The creation of the Future Battery Industries CRC is fundamental to linking Australia’s advanced battery research centres to progressive resources companies which are seeking to maximise value from the emerging storage market.

“The end result will be the creation of jobs and the establishment of a whole-of-supply-chain battery manufacturing industry across many parts of our nation.”

While lithium often takes the headlines when it comes to battery minerals, Mr Ellis said the CRC would look at all manner of related commodities.

“The lithium story is well known, with substantial investment already occurring in lithium hydroxide plants in WA,” he said.

“Equally, the CRC is working with participants nationally with interest in accelerating development schedules for nickel, graphite and vanadium project development and battery technology development.

“Through this kind of collaboration, we are con dent we can further the ambitions of governments and industry so Australia grows as a global player in the rapidly changing global supply chain for batteries.

“This is a space where China has made a rapid rise, but other countries are competing for the opportunities as well.

“Our role is to help participants come together and test their ideas, including with companies further down the value chain, in order to deliver research that can grow our exports of battery industry-related products and technologies needed around the world.”

Mr Ellis said the current gap in the Australian value chain was highlighted in recent reports, including The Lithium-Ion Battery Value Chain: New Economy Opportunities for Australia report by Austrade, and the WA Government’s Future Battery Industry Strategy.

“The step beyond mining and refining is to move to the production of some of the engineered components that go into battery cells to support the anodes and cathodes and these so-called precursor chemicals,” he said. “There’s clearly capability for those to be manufactured in Western Australia.

“The CRC can act as a vehicle which draws together participants with a shared ambition, whether it is vertical integration, battery deployment or systems development, to share ideas and collaborate and to focus on the priorities and on where research can best inform taking the next step in the value chain.”

A focus on battery industry development would include research that informs the policy and regulatory settings of State and Commonwealth governments in order to grow new industries in the battery value chain.

According to Mr Ellis, the CRC will zoom in on three major research programs.

“We’ll be looking at questions around the supply chain integrity and provenance of materials,” he said. “Australia has an opportunity in this industry to demonstrate its materials are environmentally, ethically and responsibly sourced, as opposed to materials coming from an area of conflict, where ethical standards may not be as high.”

Mr Ellis said it was possible the largest investment of the CRC would be in processing and recycling.

“On the one hand, it’s looking at how can we reduce costs and improve the quality of battery materials and processing methodologies,” he said.

“Secondarily, how can we facilitate vertical integration? How can we demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of processes to move to both precursor production in Australia and expansion of the recycling industry?”

The component manufacture and testing of the batteries was the third facet of research the CRC would focus on. This would involve considering ways to expand existing battery cells and packaging capabilities in Australia.

Mr Ellis said the three aims of the CRC were part of the bigger picture. “It’s recognising the CRC is ultimately seeking to facilitate the growth of the industry to improve its competitiveness and to attract new investment into the industry,” he said.

“We want to help expand our existing industries, but also grow new industries to capture the opportunity of the demand we’re seeing in the global supply chain for batteries.”

The State Government has already agreed in principle to provide some of its funds earlier than initially anticipated to allow for the commencement of projects at the centre. These projects would begin during the period of participants reaching final agreements with the CRC.

“Many of the participants in the CRC were prepared to take action early before the confirmation of the Commonwealth funding, so the CRC can really hit the ground running with a range of projects – both technical projects and economic research ideas,” Mr Johnston said.

Image: WA Mines Minister Bill Johnston.