REAL AUSTRALIA

Voice of Real Australia: Copper and the rare earths are the renewable future of mining

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The demand for Australian copper is set to soar due to its uses in renewable technologies such as electric vehicles.

The demand for Australian copper is set to soar due to its uses in renewable technologies such as electric vehicles.

Mining is a dirty word in some quarters and there is an urgent need for Australia to reduce its carbon emissions and its mining in industries like coal and gas, no matter what the Nats think.

However, other mining industries will actually grow in importance as we move to renewables.

That's good news for areas like North West Queensland which has a large mining presence in sectors like copper, zinc and rare earth elements, due to their use in renewable energy industries and electric vehicles.

Queensland Resources Council head of policy Andrew Barger told a recent industry breakfast here the rapid deployment of clean energy technologies implied a significant increase in demand for minerals.

The International Energy Agency has said carbon net zero by 2070 would mean a quadrupling of mineral requirements for clean energy technology by 2040, while net zero by 2050 requires six times more minerals than today.

Elements like copper, lithium, cobalt and zinc were in high demand in electric cars and in power generation such as wind and solar PV.

Mr Barger said copper in particular is seen as 'the new gold" and Goldman Sachs analysis in 2020 found copper was facing a supply crunch with bullish forecasts of price rises to 60pc by 2025.

Meanwhile the demand for zinc in batteries is growing due to their longer service life, non-flammable electrolytes and more stable charging cycles.

The June 2021 Resources and Energy Quarterly said Redflow were offering a 10 KWh zinc-bromine flow battery which offers less sensitivity to ambient temperature than lithium-ion batteries.

Then there is the Rare Earth Elements, a group of 15 elements in the periodic table with weird names like yttrium, lanthanum and neodymium.

Strange or not, they are vital components in magnets for fighter jets and tanks, and they also play an important role electric vehicles, wind turbines and electronic gadgets.

Then Queensland Mines Minister Anthony Lynham visits the John Campbell Miles drill core storage facility in Mount Isa in 2019.

Then Queensland Mines Minister Anthony Lynham visits the John Campbell Miles drill core storage facility in Mount Isa in 2019.

Despite the name they are not particularly rare in the earth's crust. Caesium is the 25th most abundant crustal element. However, it is not common for them to occur in concentrations sufficient to support commercial mining operations.

China dominates the supply of these minerals, and they are becoming a weapon in the growing US-China trade war.

The strategic importance of rare earth elements was reflected in their inclusion in the US Government's 2018 list of 35 critical minerals.

In 2019 Geoscience Australia and the United States Geological Survey signed an agreement to assess each country's resource potential and develop new supply.

The Queensland government has also put $13.8m into the search with Mount Isa's John Campbell Miles drill core storage facility to play a key role.

The facility is essentially a huge lab library of core samples dating back half a century.

But in the 1960s the industry was only interested in nickel, lead and silver, not in rare earths or cobalts.

Experts will go now back through core samples, old mine shafts and tailing dams to find overlooked minerals with a range of exploration techniques, including aerial, magnetic and gravity surveys to encourage companies to explore promising areas.

As Mr Barger said in Mount Isa, the allure is that the metallurgy of where the rare earths can occur is co-located with the already known metallurgy in the region.

"Suddenly you are talking about rather than train loads of commodities you'll have handfuls and suitcase-full, but these commodities are selling at a higher price," he said.

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