Battery cells to charge the next mining and manufacturing boom

It is unclear how much of the battery supply chain Australia can wrest from Asia, the EU, the US and the UK, however, some companies are promising to undertake different parts of production in Australia.

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“These nations are executing comprehensive and well-funded strategies to strengthen their strategic positions,” O’Rourke said. “Their strategies are looking to buy directly from the mine, or buy the mine, which results in a lost opportunity for Australia.”

High lithium price cycles have given confidence to three projects near Perth, including a partnership between Australian miner IGO and China’s Tianqi Lithium, promising to refine lithium concentrate into battery-grade lithium hydroxide. About 200 people work at the Tianqi plant to refine the product, which is lighter to ship and sells for a higher price to downstream manufacturers.

“We have recently seen significant support from the government [for] modern manufacturing and downstream production, said IGO chief Peter Bradford. “We will need commitment at the state and federal level to continue through the cycle.”

Australian companies further down the supply chain exploring more advanced processing and even manufacturing cells for large-scale batteries describe an uphill battle to secure private and government funding.

Manufacturer VSPC’s pilot plant in Wacol, Brisbane, where it is working to commercialize cathode active materials for use in batteries.

Lithium Australia subsidiary VSPC is currently working at a site in Queensland to commercialize cathode active materials – a component part of the battery with a positive symbol and among the final manufacturing stages before lithium enters a battery.

“We recently applied for a grant to support the development of a small-scale commercial facility for our process here in Australia, and we were unsuccessful,” said executive director Andrew Skalski.

“The federal government is not following the chops at the moment.”

Skalski said that unless the operation becomes commercially viable in Australia, the company would consider moving production to the United States. “The window of opportunity is small,” he said.

Brian Craighead, founder of Energy Renaissance.

Brian Craighead, founder of Energy Renaissance. Credit:Steven Siewert

It is also uncertain whether a handful of companies can establish large-scale battery cell manufacturing without a local automotive manufacturing sector to supply. According to McKinsey and Company, based on past developments in other industries, the global competition among battery cell manufacturers will eventually come down to between 10 and 15 players. Meanwhile, CSIRO says cell manufacturing in Australia will not be competitive with China, although there are opportunities for local and niche manufacturing.

ASX-listed Energy Renaissance will in the coming months move into a purpose-built factory in Tomago, New South Wales, where it plans to be Australia’s first large-scale battery manufacturer by 2023 and then to expand to other states.

“The easiest and least resilient route here would be to sell wool and buy back sweaters, and we must not repeat that mistake of the past,” said company founder Brian Craighead.

He ruled out global competition to make batteries for electric vehicles, but promises large-scale batteries for the power grid and for industries such as defence, public transport and agriculture. The company is working on stocking two off-grid dairy farms in Victoria and sees Southeast Asia as its biggest market.

“We will quickly become the smallest customer, but we will be important because we are local and they can rely on us,” Craighead said. “We give [mineral processors] three, four or five years of order certainty. And that is enough for them to set up their financial file.

While the company has received about $2.5 million in government funding for manufacturing, Craighead said raising capital was the biggest hurdle.

“We are basically funded entirely by people who are believers,” he said. “We could have been operational two or three years earlier if we had had more support.”

Magnis Energy Technologies, another ASX-listed company, owns a grant with a majority stake in a lithium-ion battery cell manufacturing site in New York state and plans to replicate the plant in Townsville, Wash. Queensland.

The company received $3.1 million from the Queensland government for a feasibility study in 2018, but Magnis chairman Frank Poullas said plans for the $3 billion site now depend on private investment and additional government.

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“We have all the raw materials in the country, it makes sense that you can have this circular economy with lithium-ion batteries locally. But we are not getting the support,” Poullas said. “I think a battery manufacturing facility could become a catalyst for other manufacturing, like vehicle production in Australia.”

The manufacturing sector, which now accounts for less than 10% of Australia’s economy, has been in decline since its peak in the 1960s. Louise McGrath, head of industry development and policy at Ai Group, said that a small domestic market and not being on a major trade route limited the sector.

“Manufacturing has become more complex and specialized, and it’s less volume-based,” McGrath said. “Most products that require scaling up will not be made in Australia.”

However, she said Australia could compete by demonstrating the integrity of its supply chain. “Where the government could help is to certify this supply chain.”

Whittingham, who advises the US government on lithium-ion batteries, said governments need to look beyond their borders to diversify sources of minerals and secure trusted suppliers.

“There’s a lot of talk right now in the United States about getting lithium from Australia,” he said. “No country has everything.”

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