Boosting WA's battery business

WESTERN Australia could be a couple of steps further down the lithium-ion battery industry value chain within five years if the government gets its way.
Boosting WA's battery business Boosting WA's battery business Boosting WA's battery business Boosting WA's battery business Boosting WA's battery business

Image: iStock/Vefimov 513057360

The government has released its Future Battery Industry Strategy, which it hopes will lead to the state becoming a leading exporter of future battery minerals, materials, technologies and expertise.

The state is rich in the raw materials needed for batteries. It is the world's leading supplier of spodumene concentrate - a 6% lithium ore - and also has an abundance of nickel, cobalt, aluminium. It even has rare earths. Indeed, WA produces nine of the 10 minerals needed to produce most lithium-ion batteries and has commercial reserves of the 10th - graphite.

What if the world suddenly decides that vanadium batteries are the way forward? The state has got a fair bit of that metal lying around too.

It also has a skilled workforce used to the mining side of things.

Given its strict environmental standards WA is also ranked highly as an ethical source of battery minerals - something becoming increasingly important in the industry.

Time is also on the state's side, given the battery business is still in a state of flux.

Future Battery Industry Ministerial Taskforce chairman and WA Mines Minister Bill Johnston said he saw no reason why the state could not become a battery manufacturer in its own right but said the other core parts of the battery supply chain had to be in place first.

At the moment the state is building up its lithium hydroxide production capabilities. Tianqi, Albemarle and SQM are all working towards building plants, with Tianqi by far the most advanced.

Lithium hydroxide is a couple of stages down the battery materials value chain. It is above mining lithium ore and producing spodumene concentrate but not as far down the chain as the government would like.

BHP's Nickel West refinery, which is near the Tianqi facility, was recently updated to produce the nickel sulphate needed for batteries.

Johnston pointed to the Tianqi plant as a success in downstream processing - something the state has sorely wanted to but has largely eluded it.

"What we haven't been able to do in other minerals we've been able to do in lithium," he said.

The other battery supply chain stages are producing precursor chemicals; battery components such as cathodes, anodes, separators and electrolytes; and then battery cell manufacture.

Johnston believes that in five years the state could be producing precursor chemicals and possibly even battery components. Whether it should go further than that is open to conjecture.

The federal government's own battery industry plan plumps very much for battery manufacturing, be that in WA or another state. WA's own Chamber of Commerce and Industry argued the state should not look that far down the value chain but certainly pursue a higher level of value adding.

Northern Minerals managing director George Bauk said the state needed to "start dreaming bigger".

His company is the only rare earth processor on Australian soil.

"We just have to look at what China has done from a very low base," Bauk said.

"We just have to open our minds. I don't believe we've pushed the boundaries of what we can do."

Bauk bemoaned the approach by some companies to try to get to revenue generation quicker by going for a lesser product.

Association of Mining and Exploration Companies CEO Warren Pearce also believes the state should get as far down the battery industry value chain as it can.

"The delivery of this strategy is timely, the lithium battery value chain is still being formed," he said.

"The government needs to step up and deliver quickly so WA can position itself as a key player and realise a greater return for our minerals through further domestic value adding.

"If we are to realise this opportunity it could reshape the entire WA economy, providing jobs, economic diversification and leadership in a critical future technology."

WA Premier Mark McGowan drew a comparison with the state's massive iron ore sector.

"When the iron ore industry was created in the early 1960s it started small and built up over the decades," he said.

"This industry has started small and built up quickly."

So what is the WA government putting up to back its plan?

In financial terms the only commitment is $6 million and that hinges on the federal government deciding to put a battery industry cooperative research centre in the state. McGowan said the government's other contributions would come through helping attract investment, making sure projects get timely regulatory approvals, identifying and plugging skills gaps and helping develop the battery industry research and technology sector.

"We have four major projects around WA that got up from a standing start a couple of years ago," he said.

According to the strategy the WA government will also look at opportunities for the adoption of battery technologies.