A company in the New South Wales Central West is hoping to cash in on the growing rare earths market as countries look to diversify away from Chinese supply.
- China dominates the rare earths market but buyers are looking to diversify amid supply chain doubts
- A CSIRO report found there was a huge economic opportunity for Australia as the world transitions to renewable energy
- A company near Dubbo hopes to be the first rare earths mine in NSW
Australian Strategic Materials has a licence to mine rare earths at a site south of Dubbo that contains zirconium, niobium and hafnium.
The minerals are used in a range of technologies, including renewable energy generators, electric car engines and dental fillings.
“These critical metals are used in electronics, defence and renewable energy so they’re essential in our new technologies as the world progresses to electrification,” managing director Dave Woodall said.
The company said the project, which had been in the works for 20 years, would create almost 300 full-time jobs and could be operational for more than 70 years.
Mr Woodall said there was interest in the project because companies wanted to rely less on China, which dominated the world’s supply of rare earth minerals.
“What’s happened with trade tensions and COVID is the certainty of those supply chains has now been questioned,” he said.
Dubbo was likely to be the first rare earth mine in NSW, Mr Woodall said.
“There are others that are trying to progress their projects, but Dubbo is probably the most advanced,” he said.
But the potential of western New South Wales in the world’s renewable energy future has also caught the attention of some major industry players.
In a statement Rio Tinto said it was contacting landholders near Rankins Springs, close to West Wyalong, to discuss access to explore for battery metals, including copper.
Sunrise Energy Metals has been developing a project near Condoblin that could supply nickel, cobalt and scandium to meet the growing demand for lithium-ion batteries.
University of Newcastle chemistry professor Scott Donne said the minerals at the Dubbo site played a big part in the electronics associated with renewable energy.
“As elements they have behaviours that are ideal for these sort of applications,” he said.
Dr Donne said the challenge with rare earths was finding a suitable ore deposit and separating it into the required purity.
“If the concentration of the element is not great in the deposit a lot of ore has to be dug out of the ground,” he said.
He said Australia already had the technology and expertise from our existing mining industry to be a major player in the world market.
“They’re very valuable materials and they are becoming very important for society,” Dr Donne said.
‘Swimming in opportunity’
The economic potential for Australia to develop a “critical” minerals industry was highlighted in a recent CSIRO report.
The Critical Energy Mineral Roadmap found that as the world transitioned away from fossil fuels the demand for certain minerals would increase.
“It [renewable energy technology] requires an increased volume of the very traditional metals like copper and aluminum, but also a suite of much more rare minerals that have very important properties,” director of mineral resources Jonathan Law said.
The report found Australia had the sixth largest economically viable resource of rare earths in the world — but its stable democracy and reliable minerals sector were just as important.
“It’s not only the volume of supply that’s an issue,” Mr Law said.
Mr Law said Australia could leverage itself as a less risky supplier with China currently dominating supply of the world’s rare earth elements.
“There’s natural geopolitical pressure to consider — whether or not that supply is stable in the longer term,” he said.
“We are swimming in opportunity but each of those opportunities requires some strategic forethought and planning to make them real.”