Future energies giving the worker a future in mining

Future energies giving the worker a future in mining

The rapid uptake of electric vehicles and battery-based energy storage systems around the world is driving global demand for lithium-ion batteries.

Electric vehicle and battery manufacturers are securing sources of minerals, materials and components to meet this increase in demand representing a significant opportunity for WA. This global demand is also creating opportunities for young professionals at the early stages of their career in mining.

Case in point: Pilbara Minerals Pilgangoora mine employed more than 800 people during construction and is now running an operational workforce of around 200 people.

“Our mine is just one example of the huge opportunity that Western Australia for new energy raw materials and in particular in lithium,” Ken Brinsden, Managing Director and CEO of Pilbara Minerals said at a WA Mining Club Young Professionals function.

“We have an incredible endowment, and we are well suited through the spodumene concentrates like those produced at Pilgangoora that are going into things like EVs.”

While some argue that lithium is going off the boil, high purity alumina is rapidly trending upwards according to Alltech Chemicals Managing Director Iggy Tan, predicting that demand will go from 30,000 tonnes per annum to 270,000 tonnes per annum.

“Instead of buying your partner a sapphire ring you should buy them Altech Chemical shares,” Mr Tan joked.

With a five-figure per tonne price tag for Altech’s high purity alumina (HPA), perhaps that might be worth considering.

HPA is a high-value, high-margin and in-demand product that is a critical ingredient required to produce synthetic sapphire.

Synthetic sapphire is used in the manufacture of LED lights, semiconductor wafers used in the electronics industry, and scratch-resistant sapphire glass used for wristwatch faces, optical windows and smartphone components.

Altech’s HPA has a purity of 99.99 per cent and can sell for between $20,000 to $40,000 per tonne.

To put this into perspective, smelter-grade alumina, which has a purity of 99.5 per cent sells for around $400 per tonne.

“We are totally disruptive technology,” Mr Tan said. “The way they make high purity alumina today is using bauxite as feedstock.

“We use kaolin (aluminous clay), which will be upgraded at the Altech HPA plant in Malaysia in a single step process, meaning we are the lowest-cost producer.”

The kaolin is sourced from Altech’s Mine in Meckering, Western Australia, about 130 kilometres east of Perth and the Company has already secured a 10-year offtake deal with Mitsubishi.

There is also a growing demand for HPA from battery manufacturers who are continually seeking greater efficiency and longer life between charges.

The same battery research and development is good news for nickel producers according to Eduard Haegel, Asset President of BHP Nickel West.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of EVs and the size of lithium batteries. We are also witnessing a shift towards nickel cathodes,” Mr Haegel said.

Changes in the architecture of next-generation cathodes from NMC111 to NMC811 (80% nickel, 10% manganese, and 10% cobalt) is not only pushing the boundaries of battery performance but also breathing new life into the industry.

Growth will be big, according to Mr Haegel, which means that the Nickel West is back in the exploration business.

BHP has secured a greenfields exploration tenement package called Seahorse that covers an area of approximately 13,000 square kilometres in south-east Western Australia or around ten times larger than the Company’s holding at Agnew Wiluna Belt.

The tenement has direct access to rail and major highway routes to Nickel West’s processing infrastructure.

On top of replenishing reserves, Nickel West is also seeking greater value from its processing facility.

“We want to make the concentrator bigger, de-bottleneck and get more through the smelter and then unlock value from a new resource for us, which is HPOX,” Mr Haegel said.

High-pressure oxidation (HPOX) can process waste streams like refinery residue, converter and furnace slag.

The technology is currently untested, however if approved an HPOX demonstration plant will be constructed next to the Kalgoorlie smelter, and if the demonstration plant proves positive, the HPOX technology could create a new pathway to the Kwinana refinery.

No matter the commodity, a future in battery minerals looks bright for the young professionals who attended the WAMC YP Quarterly Networking function.