Many countries consider lithium to be a critical mineral. It is used in rechargeable batteries (making up 46% of global use for this mineral), ceramics, glass, lubricating greases, and polymer production.
In 2017, the lithium market value was around US$1.4 billion. Australia captured approximately US$550 million of this as export revenue, with a 33% share of global production.
Global lithium production rose from 14,000 tonnes in 2000 to 43,000 tonnes in 2017 and Australia has kept pace to become the world's largest producer of lithium. By 2019–20, Australia could account for around 80% of global lithium supply from hard rock deposits.
A number of lithium companies operating in Australia are taking up downstream processing to produce the more lucrative lithium hydroxide. Lithium hydroxide is worth almost 20 times more than unprocessed concentrate. This is a sign that our economy is moving to capture more of the full value chain of lithium, which is worth around AU$213 billion annually (including processing, battery cell production and product assembly).
Many countries include cobalt on their list of critical minerals. Its unique combination of properties make it ideally suited to high temperature, high-wear applications including superalloys for jet engines; magnets; carbides; and diamond tools. Cobalt is also used in batteries, catalysts and pigments. While substitutions for cobalt exist, these result in increased cost or decreased performance of the final product. A more comprehensive substitution is unlikely to emerge over the medium term.
In 2017, global cobalt production had a market value of almost US$542 million; with a 68% increase in world cobalt consumption forecast between 2015 and 2025. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) currently produces 58.2% of the world's 110,000 tonne annual production. In 2017, Australia only produced 4,971 tonnes, despite holding the world's second largest economic demonstrated resource of cobalt (behind the DRC).
Cobalt is primarily produced as a by-product of copper and nickel ore processing and production. As a result, cobalt supply is closely tied to the copper and nickel markets.
Rare earth elements
Many countries include rare-earth elements (REE) on their critical minerals lists. REE are used in renewable energy production; electric vehicles; military technologies; high-end technological applications, such as mobile phones and other electronics; lasers; speciality alloys; and batteries.
In 2017, the REE market value was US$415 million, with 130,000 tonnes of global production coming primarily from China (80.8% of production).
While REE are abundant in the earth's crust, their occurrence in economic concentrations is less common than for other exploited metals. To date, the demand for REE has been met by a relatively small number of producers and mines. In 2016, Australia had the second highest global production of REE (16%), producing lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, praseodymium and the rare and valuable dysprosium.
Mining of REE is challenging, as REE are sometimes by-products or co-products of other metals and their supply is influenced by these markets. Also, they may require bespoke waste-management solutions to deal with radioactive co-products or other chemicals.
- Lithium: Office of the Chief Economist (2018) Resources and Energy Quarterly - December 2018; Austrade (2019) Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus; GM Mudd et al. (2019) Critical Minerals in Australia: A Review of Opportunities and Research Needs. GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA RECORD 2018/51; Austrade (2018) The Lithium-ion Battery Value Chain: New Economy Opportunities for Australia.
- Cobalt: Austrade (2019) Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus; KB Shedd et al. (2017) Global Trends Affecting the Supply Security of Cobalt. Mining Engineering; GM Mudd et al. (2019) Critical Minerals in Australia: A Review of Opportunities and Research Needs. GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA RECORD 2018/51. Australia's Critical Minerals Strategy
- Rare earth elements: Austrade (2019) Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus; GM Mudd et al. (2019) Critical Minerals in Australia: A Review of Opportunities and Research Needs. GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA RECORD 2018/51.; USGS (2018) Mineral Commodity Summaries. Rare Earths.