Our clean energy transition is well underway, with Australian mining playing a major role.

Commercial mining in Australia has provided commodities essential to our everyday lives from the early days of European settlement. While the list of extracted minerals and the products made from them has gradually changed over the years, imagine our existence today without copper for electronics, tin for soldering, steel for building construction or aluminium for power lines.

Mining will continue to be important in our tech-driven future, in part because of ‘critical minerals’ and their clean energy role.

Critical minerals are those considered vital to the economic well-being of the world's major and emerging economies, yet whose supply may be at risk due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, trade policy or other factors.

Many people have heard of some of the more common ones, like cobalt, platinum and magnesium, but most people would recognise very few of Australia’s official critical minerals.

This list includes minerals such as gallium, neodymium, indium and antimony. They are used to make electronic devices, such as mobile phones and flat screen products, fibreoptic cabling, wind turbines, electric cars, rechargeable batteries, solar panels and other high-tech applications.

Critical minerals are powering our renewable energy generation and communication systems, and their role in creating and using clean energy is expanding.

Lithium is an interesting example. Lithium-ion is the most common chemical method used to store energy in batteries. Australia is home to globally significant lithium deposits and is the world’s largest producer, supplying over a third of the global market.

In addition, with our large land mass and sunny skies, Australia has become a world leader in renewable electricity generation. Over 1 in 4 houses has a rooftop solar system (the world’s highest per capita), and we have created some of the largest wind and solar farms in the world. However, the biggest challenge we, and other countries face, is storing excess renewable energy, and making it available when there is a shortfall.

Small lithium-ion batteries support home solar panel systems, providing backup power after dark – an inexpensive and efficient solution. However, batteries large enough to support the national electricity grid are expensive and have limited capacity.

Big batteries usually consist of rows of household or vehicle-sized lithium-ion batteries installed together in connected pods. At 300-megawatts and costing $160 million, one of the world’s largest big batteries sits in a paddock near Geelong, Victoria. The battery improves grid security by providing extra capacity during peak demand, and can supply 650,000 homes for an hour if required.

In addition to battery manufacture, lithium has many industrial uses and worldwide demand keeps growing. The Minerals Council of Australia recently forecast world demand for lithium will grow by more than 350% by 2030, and, not surprisingly, investment in its extraction and refinement has recently surged.

Demand for other critical minerals is similarly expected to rise. Australia's domestic demand for most major and minor minerals, including critical minerals, is relatively small; we export far more than we use each year. We hold large resources of many critical minerals and our efficient extraction methods, combined with strict environmental regulations, make us a major and favoured supplier to world markets.

In 2013, Geoscience Australia, analysed the potential for Australia to supply critical minerals to the world. The report titled ‘Critical commodities for a high-tech world’ identified 22 out of 34 minerals assessed as having at least moderate potential, including 7 ranked as having large or very large potential.

Geoscience Australia is helping to turn this resource potential into actual discovery through its eight-year $225 million Exploring for the Future program. This program is providing Australians with improved understanding of the nation’s minerals, energy and groundwater resource potential, including critical minerals.

With critical minerals being so valuable to us, both in terms of export dollars and the clean energy products we need, the Australian Government created the Critical Minerals Facilitation Office to help Australia meet the challenge of developing our mineral resources. Australia is embracing the opportunity to be a global leader in supplying the world with the critical minerals needed for a successful transition to clean energy.

Lithium mining in Western Australia.
Lithium mining in Western Australia.