Major miners benefit from industrial super hub

Australian Mining highlights one of the world’s largest integrated industrial estates and how it allows a mine like Greenbushes and BHP’s Nickel West operations to shine. 

The Kwinana Strategic Industrial Area (SIA), 40 kilometres south of Perth, is one of many to dot the west coast of Australia.

From as far south as Mirambeena, to further north at the Browse LNG precinct, these allotments provide unique purposes for businesses seeking more value from their processing prowess. 

In Kwinana’s case, it’s the easy access to one of the state’s most significant port facilities, Fremantle Port, as well as a synergistic community of companies all working to streamline their operations. 

These companies include Tianqi Lithium Corporation, Covalent Lithium, Alcoa Energy, and over the road in the Rockingham SIA, BHP Nickel West. 

The lead agency for the development of the Kwinana SIA is the Western Australian Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation (JTSI), while the land is effectively managed by DevelopmentWA, the state’s central development agency. 

DevelopmentWA chief executive Frank Marra says the Kwinana SIA is one of Western Australia’s most important strategic heavy industrial precincts.

“It forms part of WA’s premier industrial corridor, a 3900-hectare area of land stretching from Henderson to Rockingham,” Marra tells Australian Mining.

“This area has attracted tenants that specialise in chemical and resource-based processing industries, which are able to take advantage of freight access through the Fremantle Inner Harbour and Outer Harbour, and high-capacity road, rail, electricity and gas networks flowing through and around Kwinana.”

Tianqi continues to be heavily involved in this resource-based processing after first ground was broken on its lithium hydroxide plant in October 2016. 

In a joint venture (JV) with IGO called Lithium HoldCo, the refinery produced its first lithium hydroxide chemical product in August 2021. Tianqi chief operating officer Raj Surendran says it is only upward from that milestone for the JV. 

“The Kwinana plant is the largest lithium hydroxide plant in the world with two production trains,” Surendran says. “Production capacity will reach 48,000 tonnes per annum when both trains are fully operational, thanks to the plant’s high level of automation for 24/7 operation.”

Of course, this feat wouldn’t have been possible without the quality of ore sourced from the world-renowned Greenbushes lithium mine, 200 kilometres south of Kwinana. 

Talison Lithium, which owns Greenbushes as a JV between Lithium HoldCo (51 per cent) and Albemarle Corporation (49 per cent), is developing the mine to have a processing capacity of 1.34 million tonnes per annum of lithium concentrate.

Once the lithium-rich ore is processed at Greenbushes, Surendran says the Kwinana plant creates the lithium hydroxide to be shipped off for use in key technologies. 

“The company has established an integrated supply chain for lithium products by leveraging its interest in Greenbushes to source high-grade spodumene concentrate for further processing,” Surendran says. 

“Battery-grade lithium hydroxide will be sold on the global market primarily for the electric vehicle industry.”

This key industrial corridor covers a lot of ground south of Perth.

Lithium has been produced at Greenbushes since 1983, with a history of mining tin, tantalum and lithium stretching back to 1888, making it the longest continuously operated mining area in Western Australia.

This historic resource combined with Tianqi’s extensive history in lithium processing was always destined to be a recipe for success, according to Surendran.

“Tianqi brings to Kwinana the technology and experience gained from a 25-year history of manufacturing lithium compound, including its status as the first lithium company to make battery-grade products and lithium compounds from Greenbushes spodumene,” he says. 

At the Rockingham SIA, BHP Nickel West has made its own legacy within the region as a major processing player. 

Rockingham sits on the fringe of this southwestern industrial strip and plays host to BHP, WA Kaolin and FYI Resources, to name a few. 

BHP Nickel West’s Kwinana nickel refinery produced first nickel sulphate crystals in October 2021 and is ramping up to 100,000 tonnes of nickel sulphate per year once fully operational.

The company has a history in the region dating back to the 1950s when it owned steelworks, a blast furnace and roller mills. 

Since 1971, the Kwinana nickel refinery has been exporting refined nickel to international stainless-steel markets. General manager Brent Jondahl says it has grown to become an important cog in the Nickel West machine. 

“The integrated nature of our mine-to-market business adds value throughout our nickel supply chain, with the majority of Nickel West’s current production sold as powder and briquettes through the Port of Fremantle,” Jondahl says. 

Nickel from BHP’s mines – Mt Keith, Cliffs and Leinster – is processed at the Kalgoorlie nickel smelter, before it’s transported to the Kwinana nickel refinery, with 85 per cent of BHP’s nickel products then sold into the electric vehicle market. 

This process is largely benefitted by the refinery’s proximity to likeminded businesses, according to Jondahl. 

“The Kwinana nickel refinery is deeply embedded into the Kwinana industrial area,” he says.

“We sell one of our by-products, ammonium sulphate, to a number of third-party operators on the Kwinana strip, and we purchase consumables that are core to the operation of our nickel refinery from third parties, such as nitrogen and ammonia.

“These synergies provide BHP’s nickel business with an internationally competitive edge.”

This edge is enjoyed by all of those involved in the Kwinana/Rockingham region. 

Marra says this is by design, in fact, as DevelopmentWA carefully curates those which become a part of this industrial hot spot. 

“Kwinana SIA and the neighbouring Rockingham SIA are part of the world’s largest integrated ecology industrial estate,” Marra says. 

“They support growth among industrial businesses by facilitating access to extensive common-use infrastructure, deep pools of skilled labour and proximity to other industrial businesses inputs and outputs that exhibit a high degree of complementarity.”

Surendran agrees that becoming a part of the Kwinana industrial hub has created many efficiencies for Tianqi and its neighbours. 

“Operating in the Kwinana SIA has many benefits for Tianqi, including proximity to the Talison lithium mine in Greenbushes; proximity to Fremantle Port for export of lithium hydroxide to global customers; readily available supply of power, gas and water; proximity to supply of main reagents, acid and caustic; and access to a trained and experienced workforce available for both construction and operations,” Surendran says. 

Not only that, but the Kwinana SIA also ensures that the dozens of businesses are kept as environmentally friendly as the region can allow, with nearby water treatment measures in place. 

Surendran says this is yet another drawcard for the region and one to consider for prospective applications. 

“An additional sustainability benefit is the availability of water from the Kwinana water reclamation plant (KWERP),” he says. 

“KWERP takes treated effluent from the nearby Woodman Point wastewater treatment plant and uses combined microfiltration and reverse osmosis technology to supply high-quality water to local industry.”

There remains plenty of land for lease at the Kwinana SIA.

The benefits of bringing major industrial players together are also felt by the state economy and the world’s environmental goals. 

Marra sees a strong future for the region in developing the key ingredients for the world’s clean technologies. 

“The establishment of these projects in the Kwinana SIA and BHP’s Nickel West nickel refinery in the Rockingham SIA are evidence of the SIAs’ flexibility to pivot towards emerging industry needs,” Marra says. 

“These projects are playing a vital role in assisting the state and the world’s renewable energy and decarbonisation goals. 

“The state believes SIAs can become internationally competitive industrial hubs for a range of critical battery metals and renewable hydrogen production projects in the decades to come.”

While the Kwinana and Rockingham areas are the most developed of the state’s SIAs, there is still room to grow with several sites still available to lease. 

The Lead Agency Framework, set out by the state government and led by the JTSI, ensures the right kind of applicants are welcomed into the region, Marra explains. 

“The framework is designed to ensure proponents can be guided effectively through approvals processes and know what is expected of them to bring complex business operations, new technologies, innovations and progressive operations to life,” Marra says. 

“Almost 70 years after heavy industry began operating in Kwinana, the face of one of the world’s largest integrated ecology industrial estates continues to evolve.”  

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