The huge tracts of desert in Western Australia, which have yielded gold, nickel and iron ore to prospectors in a long time previous, have now change into a serious battleground for miners of lithium, a key uncooked materials for batteries because the world transitions to greener power.
A battle for management of the useful resource has been ignited this yr as multinational firms have clashed with Australian mining billionaires over a collection of takeover makes an attempt in two of the remotest elements of the state.
A bit of desert close to the mining city of Kalgoorlie within the Goldfields area has change into often called the “lithium hall of energy”, whereas merger strikes within the Pilbara within the state’s north-west have triggered reminiscences of the iron ore increase there within the Sixties and Western Australia’s nickel rush within the Seventies.
“These thrilling intervals don’t come round too typically, these extended intervals of demand for a commodity. It’s driving a frenzy,” mentioned Tom Reddicliffe, a 40-year mining veteran and govt director of GreenTech Metals, whose exploration rights within the Pilbara have buoyed its share value amid heightened deal exercise.
“There’s solely so many seats on the desk. It’s like musical chairs — you don’t need to miss out,” he added.
The “land seize” for mining rights within the lithium hall kicked off in September, when US firm Albemarle, the most important producer on the planet, agreed to pay $4.3bn for Liontown Assets, an rising mission that has struck provide offers with Tesla and Ford. Nonetheless, the takeover was foiled by Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest individual, who stealthily constructed a 19.9 per cent stake in Liontown, forcing the US suitor to stroll away.
Rinehart, an iron ore magnate, then moved to spoil one other lithium takeover, this time within the Pilbara. Chile’s SQM had agreed to pay about $1bn to purchase out early-stage lithium participant Azure Minerals earlier than Rinehart pounced once more by shopping for an 18 per cent blocking stake.
Chris Ellison, who controls A$12bn ($8bn) in miner Mineral Assets and is a shareholder in Azure, mentioned this week that SQM’s bid appeared “lifeless within the water”.
Rinehart and Ellison have change into more and more energetic buyers in a bunch of small lithium initiatives in each elements of the state, the place international firms together with Albemarle, SQM and China’s Tianqi Lithium have beforehand been among the many largest buyers.
Ian Hansen, head of the chemical compounds division of Perth-based retail-to-chemicals conglomerate Wesfarmers, which has partnered with SQM on lithium property, mentioned the latest flurry of exercise represented a “rising perception within the fundamentals of Western Australian lithium”.
“Much like the way in which that iron ore manufacturing has grown within the north-west of the state, gamers within the lithium sector might need to be in management of a giant portion of the assets to consolidate their place,” he mentioned.
Rio Tinto, which was blocked in its makes an attempt to open a lithium mine in Serbia final yr, additionally has an eye fixed on Western Australia’s potential, having utilized for a variety of tenements — licences to discover a block of land for assets — overlaying about 130,000 hectares within the lithium hall.
Small explorers similar to St George Mining are additionally being courted. It had initially established tenements within the Goldfields area within the hope of discovering nickel, till the operator of a neighbouring tenement found spodumene — the onerous rock containing lithium — two years in the past. That firm renamed itself Delta Lithium and now counts Ellison and Rinehart as main shareholders.
In latest weeks, St George has benefited, regardless of not but discovering any spodumene deposits. Amperex Expertise, TDK’s lithium-ion battery-making division, invested A$3mn in a three way partnership with the Australian miner. As well as, Shanghai Jayson New Power Supplies, a provider to lithium battery makers in China, has put A$3mn into the corporate.
John Prineas, govt chair of St George, mentioned the investments confirmed that firms within the battery provide chain have been following the lead of carmakers similar to Tesla in backing early-stage Australian miners. “Large gamers are taking a place early as it is extremely costly to take action after discovery. That’s undoubtedly a constructive signal for the way forward for the lithium trade right here,” he mentioned.
The deal frenzy has additionally come at a time when the lithium value has crashed as a lot as 70 per cent in contrast with highs seen final yr, as expectations of electrical car demand in key markets similar to China have been lowered. Prineas mentioned the funding in his firm confirmed demand remained strong. “All of the discuss is oversupply of lithium, nevertheless it’s not what we’re seeing from the top customers,” he mentioned.
Western Australia already provides about half of the world’s uncooked lithium and is seen as a steady place to speculate in contrast with elements of Africa, the place there was political instability, and Chile, the place the state has moved to take management of lithium initiatives.
Native expectations are excessive. A report by Australia’s chief economist mentioned lithium product exports ought to exceed A$20bn within the yr to June 2023, up from A$5bn within the earlier yr. The report added that by 2028, the worth of lithium exports ought to exceed these of coal, a staple of Australia’s financial system for many years.
Australia has ambitions to step up its efforts to refine spodumene to maintain extra of the worth onshore moderately than delivery all of its assets to China, which has a commanding share of the refining course of.
Refining creates higher-value lithium hydroxide, a chemical compound utilized in EV batteries. Western Australia now has two refineries, with a 3rd as a result of be opened by SQM and Wesfarmers subsequent yr.
Australia’s assets minister Madeleine King mentioned important minerals similar to lithium and uncommon earths required extra processing than coal and iron ore, which Australia has traditionally centered on. “We’ve got excessive ambitions and we need to compete with those that at present dominate the market,” she mentioned.
Nonetheless, the push into refining has been suffering from delays, price overruns, technical challenges and a scarcity of expertise, which means Australia’s problem to China’s place has made slower progress than anticipated.
Mineral Assets backed out of an Australian refinery three way partnership with Albemarle this yr, citing the issue in competing with Chinese language firms on price. Ellison mentioned his technique was to now concentrate on “gathering up rock wherever I can”, together with within the Goldfields, which he mentioned was “often called essentially the most potential lithium floor on the planet”.
Reddicliffe mentioned firms similar to Liontown and Azure, which had appeared set to be swallowed up, now wanted to show that the worth of their deposits lived as much as trade expectations. “Geology is geology, however the huge problem is determining the economics of it,” he mentioned.