Feeding the green transformation

Drilling at Cobalt Blue’s Broken Hill project.

With developers asking more of battery materials than ever before, Australia has a critical role to play in ensuring the world’s green revolution reaches its destination.

Australia is in the box seat when it comes to capitalising on the renewable energy transition, with the country’s upstream capability not solely rooted in commodities such as iron ore and gold.

Australia has some of the world’s richest resources of battery materials and leads the pack when it comes to lithium production and exports.

Spodumene concentrate is Australia’s primary lithium resource, which international customers convert into lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide to be used in batteries.

The Greenbushes lithium mine in Western Australia, owned by a three-way joint venture of IGO and Tianqi Lithium Corporation (51 per cent) and Albemarle Corporation (49 per cent), has an annual production capacity of 1.2 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) of spodumene.

Once Pilbara Minerals has ramped up its Ngungaju plant and completed improvements on its Pilgan plant at the Pilgangoora lithium operation in WA, the company hopes to be producing 580,000 Mtpa of spodumene by the middle of 2022.

Nickel is a sought-after resource in electrification, as it can improve the energy density and storage capacity of electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

Australia has a number of established nickel producers, including BHP’s Nickel West operation, IGO’s Nova operation and Glencore’s Murrin Murrin mine in WA.

According to the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources’ Resources and Energy Quarterly December 2021, Australia’s annual nickel exports amounted to 181,000 tonnes in the 2020–21 financial year.

This is a significant figure, but considering Australia has the world’s largest nickel reserves of an estimated 19 million tonnes, the country has barely scratched the surface of its potential.

Nickel development projects in Australia include Panoramic Resources’ Savannah nickel project in WA, which delivered its first shipment of nickel-copper-cobalt concentrate in December 2021.

Western Areas’ Odysseus mine in WA produced first nickel ore in October 2021, and after completing construction of its concentrator complex the company aims to produce first concentrate in the December quarter of 2022.

By that time, the mine will be under the control of IGO after the major miner bought Western Areas for $1.096 billion in December 2021. IGO hopes to complete the transaction in April 2022.

Queensland Pacific Metals (QPM) is a future producer of green nickel, cobalt, high-purity alumina and other by-products through its TECH Project.

The TECH Project is slightly different to the average pit-to-port operation in that it will import high-grade ore from New Caledonia to be processed in its Townsville plant.

QPM updated the TECH Project’s life cycle assessment in November 2021, which suggested it will be the first ever battery-grade nickel manufacturing plant that’s not only carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative.

QPM will look to achieve this goal through a gas-sourcing strategy that will see it repurpose greenhouse-intensive waste gas from metallurgical coal mines to power its manufacturing plant.

To solidify this, QPM signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Transition Energy Corporation and North Queensland Gas Pipeline in August 2021 to establish a dedicated gas supply chain from the northern Bowen Basin to the TECH Project.

The TECH Project is estimated to require 10 petajoules of gas per annum once in steady-state operation.

QPM managing director and chief executive officer Stephen Grocott said the TECH Project was built with sustainability front of mind.

“Gaining recognition for our sustainability credentials is very important. Just recognising that in the market is significant for producers like QPM because we are so clean and so green it’s not funny,” he said.

“In the sustainability race, we’ve finished the race and we’ve got our feet up having a cold drink while other people are still strapping on their running shoes.

“We’re negative greenhouse gas intensive, zero process liquid discharge, we’re almost no residue, no tailings dam. We use recycled materials in our process.”

Joined by Australian Strategic Materials (ASM) and Cobalt Blue, QPM was invited to a December 2021 meeting with Republic of Korea (South Korea) President Moon Jae-in in what was the first visit to Australia by a South Korean president since 2009.

South Korea President Moon Jae-in at the meeting.

 

South Korea has become a technological powerhouse, with the country home to three battery heavyweights, LG Energy Solution, Samsung SDI and SK Innovation, combining for approximately a third of the global EV market.

President Moon’s visit with QPM, ASM and Cobalt Blue was his only business engagement during his short stay down under, sending a strong signal that South Korea is keen to engage with Australia’s emerging critical minerals producers.

ASM used its time alongside high-level delegates to establish a deal with the Korean Mine Rehabilitation and Resource Corporation (KOMIR), the country’s dedicated body supporting the supply of critical minerals and metals into Korea.

The agreement will see ASM work closely with KOMIR to expand the use of rare earths and critical metals in Korea and shore up import opportunities going forward. The company’s South Korean processing plant will be a centrepiece of this partnership.

Australian Strategic Materials’ Korean metals plant in South Korea.

 

Liz Griffin, executive director for the Australia-Korea Business Council (AKBC) – the national body that facilitated the meeting – forecasts plenty more deals to come in the wake of the meeting.

“Things are really going to escalate and heat up over the coming weeks, months and years,” Griffin said. “Remarkably, we’ve already seen follow-up from Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and they’ve already followed up on some of the recommendations that we made in the meeting.” 

Cobalt Blue chief executive officer Joe Kaderavek said the meeting with President Moon was not just a coalescing of delegates, but the creation of a new sector.

“The Korean Government sees this as a strategic opportunity to build an industry,” he said. 

“On their side, they’re looking to create a critical minerals MoU. They’re looking to create a preferred relationship between our government and their government.

“They’re looking to put their own money in, so our $1.5 billion critical minerals loan facility will soon be matched. There will be a similar deployment of capital specifically on critical minerals between the two governments.

“Watch this space. Don’t think of it as a one-off here or there, think of it as an industry-building process.”

Cobalt Blue is represented by its Broken Hill cobalt project in New South Wales, which comprises a global mineral resource of 118 million tonnes at 859 parts per million cobalt-equivalent for 81,100 tonnes of contained cobalt.

Drill core from the Broken Hill project.

 

Broken Hill’s pilot plant successfully produced cobalt sulphate samples in October 2021, and with a host of parties eager to receive samples Cobalt Blue will transition the pilot plant to a demonstration plant in 2022.

Kaderavek says the demonstration plant will be one of its kind.

“We are going to be mining 3000 tonnes of ore and producing about 3000 kilograms of various cobalt products (from the demonstration plant). That has never been done before for a greenfield project globally,” he said.

“Why are we doing that? One, we’re proving the process works on a 24–7 basis … another important point is that (we need to ensure) we’re making the right product. 

“So we’ve already shipped samples to 30 partners globally as part of our pilot plant, which has now ceased operation. We’re now upscaling to a demonstration plant where those initial pilot samples will lead to further discussion.

“We’re looking to provide up to 100 kilograms to those partners so they can then take that and do their actual tests. As opposed to just testing for purity, they’ll do an actual test to make it into a battery.”

Cobalt Blue has also established an MoU with the Queensland Government to explore opportunities in the recovery of cobalt (and any coexisting base and precious metals) from mine waste.

This forms part of the Queensland Government’s $13 million New Economy Minerals Initiative and will see Cobalt Blue conduct testwork to evaluate minerals processing options in the recovery of target metals. Cobalt Blue expects to receive initial samples for testwork in the first quarter of 2022.

Kaderavek says that while Australia’s cobalt potential is well realised in the ground (16 per cent of the world’s cobalt reserves), it is also significantly untapped in waste.

“In waste, we have significant quantities of cobalt. For example, in Queensland there is approximately 300,000 tonnes of cobalt sitting at-surface in tailings dams, in waste streams,” he said.

“So, typically, 40- or 50-metre depth, easy to extract – it’s already been mined, it’s already been ground – so the processing costs are a fraction.”

Not only is there the economic incentive to extract cobalt from waste, but there’s also environmental, social and governance (ESG) benefits, as the extraction process reduces contaminant leaching.

Kaderavek says the possibilities are endless when it comes to waste-extracted cobalt, with potential partners likely to pay premium prices for recycled cobalt given the ESG correlation.

Australia is also advancing its potential in rare earths, something ASM is hoping to commercialise through its Dubbo project in NSW, along with other emerging rare earths companies such as Hastings Technology Metals, Arafura Resources and Northern Minerals.

Australian Strategic Materials’
Dubbo project in NSW.

Lynas Rare Earths already has an established operation at Mt Weld, WA, which produced 4209 tonnes or rare earth oxides in the December quarter of 2021.

Rare earths are used for magnets in EVs and require a small amount that is crucial to delivering an EV off the production line.

Whether it’s in the supply of lithium, nickel, cobalt, rare earths or any other critical mineral, Australia’s role in the world’s green transformation will only grow in the coming years and decades. The country’s critical minerals industry is established but we’ve only scratched the surface of our potential. 

So who’s next? Who will follow in the footsteps of QPM, ASM and Cobalt Blue and grab the opportunity by the scruff of the neck?

This feature also appears in the March edition of Australian Mining.

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