Three new reports describing ways in which Australia can establish its own ‘Lithium Valley’ urge the nation to transform its lithium potential into a new industrial behemoth, becoming a significant player in the international battery market.
|The VSPC Wacol facility|
Experts speculate that Australia’s lithium potential could rival that of Pilbara’s international 60-year, and counting, iron-ore success story, as well as mirror the success of Australia’s aluminium industry which has made an art of turning the country’s rich bauxite resources into localised downstream, value-adding smelting operations.
Underpinning the urgency of a Lithium Valley commitment is the increasing number of new and existing participants securing a foothold in the massively expanding, lithium-driven battery sector worldwide.
Listed lithium explorer and technology developer, Lithium Australia is calling for high-end political backing for Australia’s own ‘Lithium Valley’.
This month, Lithium Australia formally re-commissioned the country’s only lithium-cathode pilot plant and battery-testing facility, which will produce complex, high-grade lithium cathode powders tailored to customers' specifications.
Speaking at the opening of the VSPC facility in Wacol, Brisbane Queensland, Lithium Australia Managing Director, Mr Adrian Griffin, described the nation's rapidly closing window of opportunity to maximise its lithium potential.
“Australia must do whatever is required to capture lithium’s downstream value. Capitalising on the value inherent in the global battery industry in particular could hugely boost Australia's GDP in a relatively short period of time,” Mr Griffin said.
“We currently have the tiger by the tail. Notionally, we can control the lithium value chain by applying innovative Australian-developed processing technologies to what is already a promising flow of feedstock.
According to Mr Griffin, most of this feedstock originates in WA, which is ready to move on from its ore-quarrying and export-only mindset.
“To truly evolve, we need to not only protect our lithium exploration, mining and processing value-adds but take that next step – adopting world-leading technologies to transform mineral concentrates into lithium-ion batteries,” said Mr Griffin.
The urgency of the campaign for greater government support gained traction in Canberra last month when a delegation of high-level Australian lithium industry players met with Federal Resources, Trade and Investment Ministers and trade agencies, to put their Lithium Valley case.
As a result, working groups are now being established to assess the lithium value chain, from mining and the production of concentrates through refining to electrochemical and battery cell production and, finally, battery recycling.
Feedback from those working groups will be considered for a Federal Cabinet submission on the support required to grow Australia’s share of the new energy-metals industry, and how Australia can encourage US and EU customer and investor interest in the nation's lithium upside.
According to Mr Griffin, WA's substantial lithium mineral inventory, combined with current R&D efforts in Perth, make the State a natural home for a new Antipodean Lithium Valley.
Mr Griffin acknowledges that for lithium to ever become to Australia what iron ore has over the past decades, government must work with the US, the EU and Australia’s industrial allies in Asia to develop a diverse international supply chain, agree on infrastructure and workforce requirements for a domestic Lithium Valley, and create an investment environment that enables growth in value-chain capability.
“The Federal Government needs to review its R&D tax incentives as they relate to energy metals, to allow the required technologies to be developed rapidly. Without these technologies being commercialised in Australia, we can be assured that most of the value will continue to flow to other countries. We need to use our dominant position in the supply of raw lithium materials and our advanced technologies, to maximise the value we get from the lithium supply chain long-term.”
Lithium Australia's VSPC plant in Wacol, Brisbane, uses patented nanotechnology to produce super-fine lithium-ion phosphate powder, a precursor component for battery cathodes. It is a high-performance product that can be produced at a lower cost than competing processes.
Over a period of 14 years, more than $30 million worth of research was undertaken at the plant prior to its closure five years ago. Its recent acquisition by Lithium Australia is part of that company’s strategy to commercialise a 15-year R&D journey and manufacture lithium-ion cathode precursors.
Lithium Australia expects that first material for specification testing by international energy customers will be available from the Wacol test facility as early as the coming December quarter.
This article will appear in its entirety in The ASIA Miner 4Q18 magazine edition.