Critical minerals development a key to high-tech future

First published on 1 August in The West Australian newspaper

By Keith Pitt, Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia

Think of resources in Australia and it’s likely iron ore, coal and maybe gold come to mind. But Australia is also emerging as a key global player in supplying the resources that will power our high-tech future.

They’re known as critical minerals and rare earths, and include elements like lithium, tungsten and cobalt that are used in new batteries, smart phones, medical equipment and defence capability to name just a few.

There is a growing international buzz around critical minerals.

The coronavirus pandemic has further reinforced  the need to diversify highly concentrated critical minerals supply chains and Australia recognises that post COVID-19, we need to provide more than the raw materials to global markets and seize opportunities to move further up the value-chain.

Australian company Lynas Corporation, which already provides numerous markets with light rare earths products, is on track to further expand its rare earths capabilities. This week Lynas signed a Phase 1 contract with the US Department of Defence to design a heavy rare earths separation facility in America. This represents a significant step in diversifying a highly concentrated supply chain.

China is currently the world’s leading supplier of critical minerals products, which are essential for producing phones, laptops and advanced technologies, including powerful magnets and batteries.

This new facility with the US will strengthen the Aus-US partnership to secure a resilient supply chain of these rare earth materials that remain integral to the defence and industrial sectors.

Last year, Lynas also announced it would build a cracking and leaching plant in Kalgoorlie, bringing new jobs and downstream capability.

Earlier this month Australia and the United States held the second meeting of the US-Australia Joint Working Group to progress a Joint Action Plan on critical minerals.

For the third year in a row, bilateral collaboration on critical minerals featured on the agenda of the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), and the Secretaries and Ministers welcomed continued development of a US-Australia Critical Minerals Plan of Action to improve security of critical minerals in the US and Australia.

Recognising the impact of at-risk supply chains of critical minerals, Australia and the US plan to progress options to support new investment, to diversify supply chains and to work with like-minded countries to develop international standards on critical minerals.

At home, industry and the government are continuing to invest in critical minerals and technology.

Cobalt Blue, for example, was recently awarded a $2.4 million Cooperative Research Centre – Projects Grant to optimise their innovative metallurgical process for making battery materials.

The Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre, which includes a host of our critical mineral companies like Syrah, Covalent Lithium, Multicom Resources, along with world-leading academics, also started this year.

The government is also boosting the critical minerals research and development (R&D) activities of our national science agencies CSIRO, ANSTO, and Geoscience Australia through its $4.5 million Advancing R&D in Critical Minerals Program.

Recently, I’ve engaged with international counterparts in the United States, Japan and South Korea to consider how our approaches to critical minerals align.

In June, Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding with India on critical minerals, and discussions have commenced with the EU and UK to identify opportunities to strengthen cooperation.

These three markets provide significant opportunities for Australian producers as they all seek to ramp up electric vehicle and other renewable technology production.

The Critical Minerals Facilitation Office was established in January to serve as a central coordination point, driving national action at home to grow the sector, and internationally to secure demand for Australian supply.

The Office has been working closely with Austrade to identify critical minerals investment and off-take opportunities for Australian projects.

The Coalition Government will continue to build resilient supply chains and invest in job generating industries for a post-COVID-19 world and critical minerals will be a key component of that.