Breaking into the battery minerals market
Looking to the future: Partnership opportunities putting the battery minerals market in reach for mineral processing companies
by Dr Chris Vernon
A surge in demand for battery materials, largely due to an increased global uptake of electrically powered cars and domestic grid storage, is presenting new opportunities for mineral processing operations.
Not only does the chance exist to expand business operations and move into new markets, but also to align to more climate-friendly practices and boost the social license of the industry as a whole.
Many operations are unable to immediately pursue these new opportunities due to the stringent requirements of battery grade materials and the additional effort it takes to produce them.
Some may find the expense and commitment of processing to such a refined level and finding a willing buyer too great an outlay.
The market is opaque and driven by demanding customers.
Paths around these roadblocks are emerging and opportunities to partner with external experts are presenting themselves in different forms.
At CSIRO, we are seeing new partnership options emerge that allow more operations to explore markets and partnerships that may have previously been out of reach.
Pivoting operations requires investment and expertise
The advantages of pursuing battery mineral production can be large. So can the consequences of choosing not to.
Failing to pivot to take advantage of these growing markets puts companies at risk of falling behind the industry curve and losing opportunities to capitalise on high demand and price.
As commodity prices continue to fall, in relative terms, the emerging markets for battery grade materials offer those willing to go the next step a lifeline.
Despite the advantages of pursuit and potential risks of taking a back seat, the decision to pursue battery mineral processing isn’t simple.
Pivoting an operation from standard commodity production to high-purity battery grade materials production requires extensive investment, both in the process development and the commercial implementation.
- Refining: Normal grade and battery grade differ significantly, with battery minerals required to be refined to a higher purity.
- Facilities: Clean facilities are required for producing battery grade products, making contamination control crucial.
- Testing, Research & Development: Battery manufacturers have very different testing requirements to other customers. For example, battery grade nickel sulphate has a limit on magnetic contaminants defined in parts per billion. R&D is also required to develop a process suitable to the particular feedstock.
- Finding a buyer: This can be a ‘chicken-egg’ scenario. Buyers need reassurance from the supplier that their products are within specifications, and suppliers need confidence in buyers’ acceptance so that investment is justified.
The additional purity required of battery grade materials is not trivial to achieve from a technical perspective, nor from a commercial perspective.
Process development requires novel approaches to achieve quality targets while remaining cost-competitive. Pure materials require contamination-control measures. Additional refining requires additional capital equipment.
As most operations do not have the internal capacity, facilities, or knowledge to refine and process minerals to battery grade, engaging external expertise is required. However, the cost of expertise and testing is not small.
This cost, combined with the difficulty of guaranteeing a buyer for the end product, makes the choice to invest in this pursuit more difficult.
Increase the impact of your investment
Despite perceived barriers, there are operations currently pursuing external expertise in order to produce battery grade materials.
CSIRO continues work on a number of these projects in partnership with industry, successfully delivering processing capability for battery grade materials including graphite (both international and domestically), Manganese and Vanadium.
While obstacles exist to producing materials and engaging experts to assist, it is possible to partner, and to access financial assistance to do so.
- directly, as a one-on-one collaboration
- leveraging MRIWA grants
- through the Innovation Connection for SMEs, and
- via Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) grants.
Some of these options are obvious, while some are less known and under-utilised. At CSIRO, we will try to help you find the most cost-effective solution.
We have recently been approached to partner with some operations seeking a CRC-P, a government grant available for collaborative research projects.
Growing the battery minerals industry is important to Australian State and Federal Government. The Western Australian State Government has provided strong financial support for the Future Batteries Industry CRC.
While CRC-P grants remain somewhat unknown to many operations, CSIRO is currently engaged in four CRC-P projects. Two concern battery mineral process development, and two focus on extraction and engineering processes for battery-related commodities.
Improve outcomes for business and industry with CSIRO collaboration
If you’re looking to involve yourself with the growing demand for battery minerals, there are options available to leverage your investment and meet your goals.
While partnering with a research institute can mitigate the problems of limited internal capability and limited technical experience in a new market, exploring new pathways to partnership can mitigate the potential problem of limited funding.
For CSIRO, we have aligned our remit to help companies solve challenges around operation or market expansion.
We are well positioned to work with those seeking entry into the battery minerals market, all along the value chain, to achieve outcomes beyond internal capability.
Our experience and expertise span the development stages necessary for process implementation and application on an industrial scale, and include:
- proof of concept testing and development
- process flow sheet development and optimisation
- process scale up to pilot plant, and
- development of alternative processing systems.
On top of sharing our technical expertise, we are also passionate about expanding the conversation around battery mineral processing, improving knowledge about the different ways to engage with experts and potential funding opportunities, and creating a circular economy, where battery mineral production becomes more environmentally friendly and the industry as a whole more sustainable.
Our previous and ongoing collaborative projects have supported this goal, leading to improved economic outcomes and community engagement, improved social license to operate, and environmental outcomes – something the battery mineral market must increase for a sustainable energy future.
If you’re interested in increasing the impact of your investment and leverage your capabilities to discover new business opportunities, we are in a unique position to help.
Email me, Chris.Vernon@csiro.au, to explore how we can help you, or to explore partnership possibilities available.