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Goal: An innovative critical minerals sector that is globally competitive across a broader range of minerals.

The development of new technologies and the improvement of extraction processes by Australian operators will help to reduce the cost of critical mineral extraction and improve the environmental impact of the separation of critical minerals. Addressing these two key challenges will improve Australia's competitiveness in global critical minerals markets, particularly while the market price of some critical minerals is still low or volatile, and position us as a world leader and supplier of choice to the global market.

New technologies and processes for isolating critical minerals generated as by-products could also help to generate further value from our existing smelting and refining capacity. For example, during Australia's production of 462,000 tonnes of refined zinc in 2017, there was the potential to also generate about 1,000 tonnes of cadmium, 271 tonnes of antimony and smaller quantities of indium, gallium and germanium14. This opportunity was recently taken up by the Risdon zinc refinery in Tasmania, which has now added germanium and indium capability.

Currently, processes such as the separation of critical minerals from ore are energy-intensive. For example, the separation of rare earth elements (REE) from iron-oxide copper-gold deposits would involve additional finer grinding of the ore. The added energy intensity of the process would make it costly, and while the price for some REE is low, extraction is not economically viable using current technology. Further, separation of individual REE from other REE is difficult, as they have such similar chemical properties and this process is itself energy intensive.

Innovation could also reduce waste and create downstream recycling opportunities, including in the battery recycling sector. Australia's capacity to develop new recycling technologies could deliver greater environmental and economic returns in the medium term.

Australian resources operators are well equipped to develop less energy- and chemical-intensive processing methods for REE and other critical minerals to improve the environmental impact of separation of critical minerals. Achieving this goal will reinforce Australia's environmental credentials and differentiate Australian operations from less environmentally conscious operations.

The Australian Government is providing incentives for industry to collaborate in the critical minerals sector. Australia's Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program provides grant funding to support industry-led collaborative research partnerships solving industry-identified problems:

  • The Government has prioritised $20 million of funding in Round 7 of the Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) program for projects with a specific focus on critical minerals. The funding will provide opportunities to improve the critical minerals extraction and production capabilities of Australia's resources sector, and to increase the value added to the economy.
  • The CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE) will receive $34.45 million from 2016–2021 to develop energy-saving and resource-expanding technology that will allow lower-grade ores to be economically and eco-efficiently mined. CRC ORE is focused on extracting more value through finding, developing and linking technology step-change operational innovations across the whole-of-mine chain. CRC ORE undertakes research, as well as implementation at live mine sites, seeking opportunities to optimise ore body characterisation, geometallurgy, blasting, comminution, mine planning and economic evaluation.

Companies that are developing new processes to mine critical minerals are well supported by Australian metallurgical testing service companies, local engineering firms, and by the R&D capability of organisations such as Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to prove process steps, provide innovative solutions to bespoke orebody-related R&D issues, and to construct viable flowsheets. ANSTO and CSIRO have strong capability, experience, and pilot testing facilities for the existing Australian industry and CSIRO also has the capability for metal production, the next step in the value chain.

These research organisations are complemented by Australia's world leading Mining Engineering and Technical Services (METS) companies. The METS sector delivers technological advancements and helps improve productivity, safety and environmental standards. This contribution helps to make Australia one of the safest, cleanest and most productive mining countries.

Additionally, through the COAG Energy Council, the Australian, state and territory governments will examine and help to prioritise the resource sector's long term R&D efforts including in environmental management, geoscience, exploration, innovation, technology and critical minerals.

Footnote

  • 14 GM. Mudd, et al. (2019) Critical Minerals in Australia: A Review of Opportunities and Research Needs. GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA RECORD 2018/51.