Next mining boom depends on high-tech skills and circular economy

Dr Cathy Foley, Australia’s Chief Scientist

The global demand for critical minerals sets the scene for a new kind of mining boom in Australia, but the scale of the challenges should not be underestimated – and jobs and skills are high on the list.

The new mining opportunity is centred on the minerals and materials used for clean energy, semiconductors and other forms of high-tech manufacturing. 

Australia has an abundance of deposits of many of these minerals, including high-grade nickel for electric vehicles; graphite, lithium and other minerals for batteries; and high-grade silicon for solar cells.

This is an opportunity to create new jobs and skills in regional Australia, and revitalise communities.

However, we must ensure that it’s not simply dig and ship, that the environmental impact is prioritised, and that we train the right workforce.

No-one wants Australia to become the world’s quarry for high-value minerals. It has been calculated, for example, that we receive less than 1 per cent of the value of the minerals that go into lithium ion batteries. When you consider that we export about $7 billion worth of those minerals (nickel, cobalt, lithium and manganese) for other countries to add value, you get a sense of the scale of the lost opportunity.

A much better option is mid-stream processing – making high-purity alloys and metals to support the low-emissions future. 

In my speech to the Minerals Processing Council in Melbourne last week, I reinforced that this is an excellent economic opportunity to cement Australia into the global supply chain for low-emissions technologies, especially when you consider global demand. 

This month, the US mandated that 40 per cent of inputs for US manufacturing, including batteries, must come either from the US or from trade-agreement partner countries, including Australia. This will rise to 80 per cent over time.

Critical minerals processing would maximise the potential of our industrial capability and lift the complexity of the Australian economy. The US has recognised this value itself, and has recently committed $US675 million towards domestic critical minerals manufacturing.

But it must go hand in hand with workforce training. 

As thought-leaders prepare for the Jobs and Skills Summit, much has been made of the need to boost skilled migration. 

But equally urgent – if more challenging – is the need to develop a domestic workforce with high-tech capability and deep scientific knowledge; a workforce that makes use of the untapped human resources that already exist within Australia.

This is a task that needs attention from kindergarten upwards, with broader STEM education in schools, clearer pathways into the emerging industries, post-school training that goes beyond the university system to a really focused vocational system, and on-the-job training. 

I often stress the need for industry to come to the party on this. We need universities to be responsive to the national mission and to the potential applications of their research, but they’re not the place for job training. 

The skills gaps extend to industries beyond critical minerals and low-emissions technologies, to space and defence industries and to biotech and quantum technologies. 

I am leading the development of a quantum strategy and will have more to say on that soon. Suffice to note that quantum technologies are likely to create 16,000 new jobs by 2040, but the number of people studying STEM subjects at high school is going backwards and increases at university level are driven almost entirely by international students. 

This is not the way to ensure Australia has the capability in regional communities to make the most of the critical minerals and materials opportunities, or other opportunities in emerging industries and energy. 

There is another part of the equation, and that is the environmental impact.

Many of the current technologies for extracting and processing minerals are energy intensive, and environmentally damaging. 

For example, extracting just 1 gram of platinum requires moving and processing 1 tonne of ore. Another example is hydrofluoric acid to purify graphite – the technique used in almost the entire global production of battery graphite. Hydrofluoric acid is highly toxic, and has significantly negative impacts on the environment. At the other end of the life cycle is the challenge of waste. Just to take one example, lithium-ion battery waste in Australia is projected to grow from 3300 tonnes in 2016 to near 190,000 tonnes by 2036.

Solving these challenges will allow Australia to meet the expectations of the local community and of the global supply chains.

It is a shared responsibility and we are well placed for it. We have a natural advantage in our valuable mineral deposits. We have excellent science and a history of world-leading innovations. What’s needed now is a collective commitment to building high-tech skills and capabilities so that all Australians can have a fair share in this future. 

It is not the time for nibbling around the edges. The transformation is big and the solutions must also be at scale. I’m looking forward to having this discussion at the Jobs and Skills Summit this week.