lithium mineral, mining

There’s more than 100,000 jobs and $50 billion in economic activity up for grabs if a “Lithium Valley” is set up in Western Australia, according to Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman, one of the authors behind a new report calling for the state to become a battery manufacture and technology leader.

According to Newman, Western Australia is a one-stop shop for all the materials needed to power the new economy, and says a “Lithium Valley” should be set up in Kwinana, Perth, leveraging off the recent announcement of a lithium hydroxide refinery being built, and Tesla’s recent meeting with the state government.

The report – Lithium Valley: Establishing the case for energy metals and battery manufacturing in Western Australia – says WA is home to the world’s most accessible abundance of energy metals, including lithium, cobalt, vanadium, tin, tantalum, nickel, manganese, magnesium and rare earths – essential components in batteries and other renewable tech.

“No other place in the world has all of them,” Professor Newman told The Fifth Estate.

Not only should Australia be mining the ingredients needed for electric batteries, it needs to be adding value by doing the refining and manufacture of the end products, the new report argues.

For example, for lithium “there are ways now to create high-quality mineral products that can be combined into electrochemical processes that are then made into batteries”, it says.

“There is no reason why this should not be done here.”

The report found the country was currently only capturing 0.5 per cent of lithium’s ultimate value through export, with additional value to be captured through refining, electrochemical processing, battery cell production and assembly.

Why WA?

Aside from WA hosting all the resources needed for the new economy, there are a number of additional reasons why it makes sense to invest in transforming Kwinana into a Lithium Valley.

It is already set up as “one of the most integrated, efficient and productive industrial estates globally” due to oil and gas, resources and agriculture investment, the report says.

“The chemical precursors and other requirements for electrochemical processing are already in place.”

Western Australia also offers quality.

“This is where we can make the quality product they need for batteries,” Newman says.

“There is no other place that is producing the quality that is needed for the great rush of batteries going to be built for motor vehicles.”

Another advantage for Western Australia is a transparent, democratic governance system that provides low sovereign risk and an ethical supply chain. In contrast, a lot of the world’s cobalt is currently mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, though there are serious problems with child labour.

Another issue Newman mentioned was security. He said China and Russia were investing heavily in these metals around the world, which was risking supply to other countries. Investing in capability here would mean Australia would have less risk of being cut out of international supply chains.

Government action needed on lithium

Newman says he’s been working on the transition to the “next economy” for many years but that it is now “happening at such a rush”.

“Companies in the world we’ve interviewed showed there’s an extraordinary amount of demand just around the corner,” he said, with batteries soon to be commonplace in housing, industry and cars.

For example, he says Tesla this week met with the WA government and said, “We need your metals.”

“We’ve been waiting for this moment.”

But government assistance will be required to take advantage of the rush.

Newman says while the state government has shown keen interest, there are a number of things government could be doing at the federal level.

He’s calling on the federal government to create a special economic zone around Kwinana to enable the development of Lithium Valley.

“It should be part of a City Deal,” he says. “It should be a high priority for the whole country.”

Newman also wants a CRC for New Energy Metals established.

“It would provide the input to make the high-quality products needed.”

Time is of the essence though.

“We either take this and go with it, or we lose it.”

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