Australian miners have a major opportunity to produce rare earth minerals considered by global smartphone makers to be critical to the development of their products.
A new report (pdf), prepared by Geosciences Australia and released by Resources Minister Gary Gray, investigates the potential for Australia to become a global supplier of commodities used in the production of smartphones, flat-screen televisions and electric cars.
It covers 34 metal, non-metal and mineral commodities considered critical to the economies of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, the UK and the US.
“This is the first report on Australia’s mineral resources potential to supply critical commodities, and Australia could be a key player in providing a diversity of supply to the global market," Gray said in a statement.
A commodity is considered “critical” if it is both economically important and has high risk of supply disruption, according to the report.
It comes as China, which dominates the world market for rare earths, tightened restrictions on exports of the metals.
Gavin Mudd, senior lecturer in environmental engineering at Monash University, said despite the opportunity there was still a big gap between what lay in the ground and the ability for Australia to extract economic value from it.
“Australia’s actually going to have less smelting and refining capacity in the near future. Unless we’re coming up with new technologies to get these metals out and doing it here as opposed to just shipping off the concentrates overseas, we’re not going to get that much economic value out of it,” Mudd said.
“Will some of the economics of this change to actually justify smelting? Possibly, but the cost of labour, capital, energy, all that stuff has to be put into the mix, and that’s why companies are getting out of doing that sort of stuff.”
Mudd’s research has extensively covered BHP’s Olympic Dam mine, where BHP has deemed the extraction of rare earth elements “uneconomic”.
Mudd said China’s approach remained quite different to that of Australia.
“Instead of just exporting the primary rare earths and the contenrates they want to take them right through to the high value-add electronic products themselves so they get a better return on it.”