Battery minerals, Commodities, Features

How Australia can refine its critical minerals approach

critical minerals

Australia is rapidly realising its critical minerals opportunity, but there are several initiatives that could help expedite the mission. 

Critical minerals play an important role in sustaining the financial wellbeing of the world’s major and emerging economies. They are used in the manufacturing of mobile phones, flat-screen monitors, wind turbines, electric cars, solar panels, and many other applications. 

While demand for critical minerals is projected to grow due to rapid deployment of clean-energy technologies, they are currently at risk of geological scarcity, geopolitical issues and trade policy.

So what is Australia’s critical minerals approach and how can the nation better harness its existing infrastructure to realise the opportunity? Australian Resources & Investment explores several initiatives that could expedite the quest. 

Opportunistic co-production

As the largest mining company in the world, the lion’s share of BHP’s revenue come from its iron ore operations. 

When considering the US Geology Survey’s 2022 list of critical minerals, nickel, zinc and cobalt are the only critical minerals the company currently produces. 

BHP produces nickel from its Nickel West operations in Western Australia, along with cobalt as a co-product. Zinc is produced as a co-product from the company’s Olympic Dam operations in South Australia.

Tackling small, technically challenging, diverse and imperfect markets to mine critical minerals might not suit BHP’s business model or its shareholders’ interests. However, the company has the potential to extract additional minerals as co-products to contribute to the global critical minerals supply. 

Take, for example Olympic Dam, Australia’s largest copper mine. Its ores include critical minerals such as cobalt and tellurium, along with the host mineral, copper, which is economically assisted by uranium and gold. 

If Olympic Dam could extract all of the critical minerals from its ore streams, it could significantly add to its gross resource value and become a prominent contributor to the global critical mineral demand. 

Nevertheless, there are many challenges in extracting these critical minerals. For example, rare earth elements often have low variations in density with their gangue – the commercially worthless material that surrounds a mineral – and can be difficult to extract as a result.

Employing additional extraction techniques downstream could unlock critical minerals previously considered inaccessible. It might take some imagination but could serve as another viable stream for Australia’s critical minerals future.

This takes us to the next point.

BHP’s Olympic Dam operation.

The role of smelters and refineries

The production of critical minerals relies on smelters or refineries, and it is often more cost-effective to retrofit existing facilities than to build new dedicated facilities. This offers an opportunity for smelters and refineries to produce more critical minerals as co-products. 

Olympic Dam is an example of a facility at which latent capacity exists to produce critical minerals, but where a combination of business focus and advances in technology are required to unlock the capacity. 

In January 2022, Rio Tinto announced the construction of the first module of a commercial scale scandium demonstration plant at its Fer et Titane metallurgical complex in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, Canada. 

Rio Tinto invested $US6 million ($8.4 million) into the building of the module, with an initial capacity to produce three tonnes of the critical mineral scandium oxide per year, which would make up approximately 20 per cent of the current global market. 

In May, Rio Tinto produced its first batch of high-purity scandium oxide from the plant and became the first North American producer of the critical mineral, which is used in solid oxide fuel cells and in aluminium alloys.

In the same month Rio Tinto announced its Kennecott copper operation in the US state of Utah had started producing tellurium, a critical mineral used in solar panels. A $US2.9 million circuit was built at the Kennecott refinery to achieve this copper co-product, which will enable Rio Tinto to produce approximately 20 tonnes of tellurium per year.

This is evidence of how smelters and refineries can be manoeuvred to co-produce alternate minerals and could be an inspired way of supplementing Australia’s critical minerals strategy. 

Mine waste and abandoned mines could offer a solution

Lack of government policy, financial incentive or techno-economic barriers at a company level mean critical minerals are currently discarded to tailings storage facilities. Their retrospective recovery will be attractive only if the value of metal-contained tailings exceeds the costs of extraction and processing. 

The extent to which critical minerals exist in historic mine tailings and other waste streams is also subject to a great deal of uncertainty. 

In the past, miners did not necessarily assay for minerals that held no value, and historic records are often incomplete. However, more and more resources are being committed to tailings investigation. 

In April, Geoscience Australia teamed up with the University of Queensland, RMIT University and the Geological Survey of Queensland to develop a national database of mine waste sites across the country and the minerals that could potentially be present.

The Atlas of Australian Mine Waste from the Australian Government’s $225 million Exploring for the Future program highlights new opportunities to recover valuable minerals – a concept known as secondary prospectivity.

In December 2021, Cobalt Blue established a Memorandum of Understanding with the Queensland Government to explore opportunities in the recovery of cobalt (as well as any co-existing base and precious metals) from mine waste.

This forms part of the Queensland Government’s $13 million New Economy Minerals Initiative and involves Cobalt Blue conducting testwork to evaluate minerals processing options in the recovery of target metals.

The statistics from the past 20 years show the proportion of mine-waste-derived metals is nominal. 

Therefore, the best approach could be multifold – both encouraging mines and smelters to extract these minerals as a by-product to the existing commodities and exploring potential mine-waste-extraction opportunities.

A large proportion of the world’s gallium is produced from red mud – a form of industrial waste.

The 2022 critical minerals strategy

In March this year, Federal Minister for Resources and Water Keith Pitt announced the 2022 Critical Minerals Strategy, which is committed to growing critical-mineral production and expanding on-shore downstream processing. 

The strategy’s major objective is to provide stable supplies through securing investments and offtake agreements, enhancing sovereign capability and enabling the creation of regional jobs and growth. With the hope to position Australia as a “global critical minerals powerhouse by 2030”, the strategy will involve strengthening engagement with key countries such as the US, India, Japan, Korea, the UK, and European Union members.

This strategy is well placed to complement other major initiatives, such as the Global Resources Strategy (via diversifying markets), Modern Manufacturing Strategy (via critical-minerals processing) and the Technology Investment Roadmap (via low emissions technologies). 

Australia’s large critical-mineral endowment and high environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards mean the sector can respond to market expectation and demand.  We have the potential to meet the future needs of our key trading partners.

With the strategy in place, and the capital to support it, it’s now about optimising the implementation phase. The critical minerals are there to find. 

Mohan Yellishetty is an Associate Professor in Resources Engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering at Monash University and co-founder of the Critical Minerals Consortium. He’s been recognised as one of the leading experts in the area of sustainable mineral resources.

Dr David Whittle is a Research Fellow in the Department of Civil Engineering at Monash University and a Co-founder of the Critical Minerals Consortium. 

This feature appeared in the June issue of Australian Resources & Investment.

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