The CSIRO has begun testing new technology that could unlock 70 per cent of the world's nickel supply.
The new processing technology, developed by the CSIRO and Direct Nickel, aims to make mining nickel laterite a commercial reality.
The majority of mined deposits are currently nickel sulphides because the ore is easier and cheaper to process, but most of the global nickel supply is wrapped up in laterites.
Traditional processing techniques use large quantities of sulphuric acid at high temperatures, which results in an expensive operation with a large environmental footprint.
In a statement the CSIRO said its new method used nitric acid, over 95 per cent of which could be recycled.
Researchers have begun testing the process in a $3.5 million pilot plant in Perth, and if everything goes to plan the technology could be ready for the industry by 2016.
“This process has the potential to revolutionise the global industry. Australia has an abundance of nickel laterites, so it would provide a significant boost to our economy,” CSIRO mineral processing research head Dave Robinson said.
“We have been working in partnership with Direct Nickel for over three years and the pilot plant is an important step in understanding the process. It will provide the engineering data to validate our technical and economic predictions.”
Direct Nickel CEO Russell Debney said construction and operating costs for the new technology were significantly lower than existing techniques, and the process could turn a host of new deposits into commercial mines.
“Technical difficulties and the high costs of existing processing methods are massive and continuing roadblocks,” he said.
“There is a desperate need for a solution to the laterite processing problem that is threatening world supply. Other forms of nickel reserves, such as sulphides, are running out and there are few new discoveries.”