Can Australia parlay “dumb luck” of mineral riches to lead world in battery recycling?

A new battery innovation award has been launched in Australia in a bid to parlay the country’s “dumb luck” in mineral resources into a world-leading national battery industry, ranging all the way from onshore metals processing to recycling.

The Energy Renaissance Innovator Award, which is administered by the Australian Battery Society and sponsored by local up-and-coming battery manufacturer Energy Renaissance, offers 10 individual awards of $2,500 to successful applicants to pursue investigative projects.

The award will cover a range of interests from battery chemistry, prototyping of batteries, the design of battery packs, developing safety and control systems, how batteries are used and recycled to policy and STEM issues to support the development of an Australian battery industry.

Dr Adam Best, the director of the Australian Battery Society, said on Tuesday that the broad goal of the awards program was to spark new opportunities for students and professionals to test, investigate, explore and share knowledge, ideas and concepts.

Best, a leading researcher and educator in battery technologies and also co-chair of the International Meeting on Lithium Batteries (IMLB) to be held in Sydney in 2022, says that while Australia has been at the forefront of the adoption of cutting edge battery technologies, very little of it is home grown.

“In terms of where all the technology comes from, it comes from overseas. So we really have no [intellectual property],” he told RenewEconomy in an interview.

“What we do have is the mineral technology, so all the minerals that are going into these batteries are basically leaving the country, being processed  … and then imported back.

“We need to move from just selling … lithium spodumene concentrate to lithium carbonate, preferably even cathode and anode materials. …So, by moving further downstream, we also build up our own sovereign capability, to be a supplier in battery technology.

“And I think that’s a really critical and important thing if you’re really going to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Best added. “Otherwise, we’re very much at the behest of the world’s market [in terms of] what we can access.”

Best sees the opportunities for Australia in the battery supply chain as enormous and wide ranging, starting with innovations to the current processes that make battery materials, which he notes are currently very labor and energy intensive.

“How can we remove that energy intensity? How can we make these [cleaner and easier] to manufacture, because that, ultimately, has an impact on the actual affordability of things such as EVs … [and] in order to have mass uptake, you need to make them cheaper.”

But one of the biggest opportunities Best sees is in battery recycling, due to Australia’s existing skill set in the use of technologies like hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy, built up via the mining and resources industry.

“These are technologies that are our primary metal miners are extraordinarily good at, to the point that they’ve scaled it now so that we can can ship thousands of tonnes of stuff,” Best said.

“So the question is, what can we do with that knowledge base to actually take that to… recycle batteries and importantly, to augment our primary metal supply? Because at some point, all of this is going to run out.

“So how do we make that pivot that we can… basically go into urban mining, to capture all this value back in a safe, sustainable manner and then put that back into the primary metal supply chain or back into … new battery manufacture. I think that’s a really massive emerging opportunity.”

To harness this massive opportunity, Best believes there are a number of measures federal and state governments could be taking to help – and they don’t necessarily include throwing money at the problem.

One policy lever he suggests is a tax on companies that just want to dig up raw material and export it without doing any form of processing, thus making it economically beneficial for those companies to “take two steps” further down the supply chain towards manufacturing capacity.

Whatever measures are used, it’s clear that there needs to be a lot more actual policy direction from the top of Australia’s political ranks to encourage the establishment of new industries that will underpin the economies of the future.

“In the the Net Zero 2050 document, [the Morrison government] talks about battery technologies explicitly and they also talk about new technologies yet to be invented. But why are we waiting for other people to invent them? Why aren’t we doing something here to augment what we already have?

“Australia has a huge number of research groups working in batteries and we’re hosting the international meeting on lithium batteries next year, which is the world’s largest battery research conference.

“So we actually have all the elements here to do these things. The thing is, how do we channel that effort into meaningful change in direction? Because other nations are definitely doing that. And I think you can see that pivot in the US since Biden came to power that the US [Department of Energy] has really almost supercharged the amount of energy and effort they’re putting into these things.

“It’s, yet again, by sheer dumb, blind luck that [Australia has ended] up with every metal in a lithium ion battery,” he adds. “And the simple fact is at the moment, we’re not doing enough with the opportunity. …We are absolutely repeating the mistakes of the past.

“We have to … move downstream as quick as we can, to gather the economic value of what we have, because again …. it’ll run out quick or …maybe a new technology is invented that supplants batteries completely.

“Now, we might not get lucky three times around and have all those elements that we can take advantage of, so while we’ve got this opportunity, we need to make the absolute most of it that we can.”

Ultimately, however, Best has a huge amount of confidence in the more than 500 students in Australia who are currently pursuing education and research in the electrochemical energy storage fields and the thousands of professionals in the industry – all of which are eligible to apply for the award.

He’s keen for the award to attract the interest of schools, too: both primary and secondary, where teachers are keen to showcase energy storage as part of their STEM lesson plans.

“We’ll be really keen for them to put in because, anything we can do in curricula that might inspire [school kids] to go into a university science or an engineering degree, then our job here is done, as well.”

Beyond school kids, the net for the award is being cast widely to include applicants in full time employment, involved in policy or education activities in the energy storage industry or students enrolled in TAFE or tertiary institutions or undertaking a Master’s or PhD program.

Applications for the Energy Renaissance Innovator Award will close on December 17, 2021. For further details and to apply for the award, visit[1].


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