Western Australia sees wave of lithium and coal projects

WA Lithium

Over the next few years, the lithium sector in Western Australia will benefit from project expenditure of several billion dollars.

The world’s largest lithium mine, Greenbushes (south of Perth), is being expanded by its proponents, Tianqi Lithium of China and Albemarle Corporation of the United States.

Both these companies are also developing refineries in Western Australia to process lithium concentrate from Greenbushes into higher-grade products suitable for batteries for electric vehicles.

At an earlier planning stage, SQM of Chile and local company, Kidman Resources, plan a major lithium mine southwest of Kalgoorlie and refinery at Kwinana. Other companies are looking at new developments or expansion in this sector.

Behind this activity lies the widespread expectation of strong future growth of electric-vehicle production in China, United States and Europe.

A major project in the Northern Territory

The mining company, TNG, is confident of securing finance within the next 12 months for its $850-million Mount Peake project in the Northern Territory. Mining and onsite processing will lead to an iron-titanium-vanadium concentrate, which will be further processed at a refinery in Darwin into higher-grade products for export. Early-stage contractors have been appointed.

Prices of vanadium have surged since last year: China requires that its use as a strengthening agent in steel be stepped-up, while it is forecast to have growing use in lithium-ion batteries for large-scale energy storage.

Coal

Since mid-2016, prices for thermal coal (used in electricity production) have risen by approximately 50% and those for metallurgical coal (used in steel production) by more. These price rises reflect strong demand from China and India for both types of coal and from Southeast Asia for thermal coal.

In terms of production and project activity, this is boosting the metallurgical-coal sector in Australia, but not so far the thermal-coal sector.

The Adani Group of India is yet to secure finance for its large thermal-coal project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin (west of Rockhampton). In addition, notwithstanding extensive consideration, the Queensland government is still to make a decision on the planned expansion of the New Acland thermal-coal mine, near Toowoomba.

In its energy policy, the new Federal government (formed this month) is likely to favour the development of reliable, base-load electricity over renewable sources of electricity. This approach will improve the political climate for the thermal-coal sector, including for the Adani Group’s project and other thermal-coal projects in the Galilee Basin.

Myanmar: revival of a previously world-class mine

In the 1920s and 1930s, the British-owned Bawdwin mine in northern Myanmar (then Burma) was a world-class producer of lead and zinc. It was destroyed by the Japanese during World War 2 and has been more-or-less neglected since Myanmar achieved independence from Britain in 1948.

Now a Perth-based company plans the redevelopment of the mine. Several Perth-based engineering consultants have been appointed for the redevelopment.