Furthering the critical minerals industry

Investigating development opportunities for a domestic critical minerals industry is the focus of Australia’s national Earth science agency, with Geoscience Australia receiving $2.7 million under Australia’s Critical Mineral Research and Development Hub.

As announced by the Minister for Resources and Minister for Northern Australia the Hon. Madeleine King MP in January 2024, this $2.7 million is part of an additional $22 million invested into Australia’s Critical Mineral Research and Development Hub (the R&D Hub) to implement three new key research projects.  

These new projects will focus on accelerating the development of Australia’s rare earth resources, unlocking the critical mineral by-product potential of existing deposits, and assessing Australia’s downstream value chain. The projects follow on from four initial research projects announced in 2022, when $15.7 million was granted to the R&D Hub.

The seven projects being undertaken by the members of the R&D Hub – Geoscience Australia, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), and Hub host CSIRO – will support the growth of Australia’s critical minerals industry and help supply materials that will be crucial to lowering carbon emissions.

What is the Critical Minerals R&D Hub?

In October 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister King announced that $50.5 million would be committed to establish the R&D Hub over the next four years.

The R&D Hub is working with industry and universities to address technical challenges and drive collaborative research across the critical minerals value chain to support clean energy and Australia’s net zero policy agenda.

The top priorities of the R&D Hub are to:

scale-up and commercialise critical minerals research and development – including priority research projects on supply chains of strategic significance

help coordinate, guide and prioritise critical minerals research and development efforts across Australia

connect critical minerals projects to the technical and research expertise they need

support strategic international critical minerals collaboration and science diplomacy.

Now with seven active research projects, the R&D Hub is focused on delivering the technical breakthroughs needed to leverage Australian opportunities in the critical minerals sector.

Of these seven projects, Geoscience Australia has been funded to lead three projects as set out below.

Critical mineral by-product potential project

Approximately 50 per cent of the critical minerals named in Australia’s Critical Minerals List are by‑products of major commodities, such as copper, zinc, lead, nickel and aluminium.

Despite making up half of the list, by-product minerals are often not considered as ‘material’ to the economics of resource extraction in Australia, meaning that companies may not report on finding these by-products or even capture them separately during the refining process of the major commodities.

This leads to a gap in knowledge of Australia’s potential reserves and its ability to produce these vital by-product minerals. 

Geoscience Australia R&D Hub lead Dr Rachael Morgan says the project is developing the methodologies and tools needed to fix this knowledge gap, and help understand Australia’s geological resource potential for critical mineral by-products such as gallium, germanium and indium. 

‘Gallium, germanium and indium are often by‑products from processing primary commodities, such as bauxite and zinc, and are essential for the creation of several electronic technologies,’ Morgan says.

‘Despite ranking first and third for global production of bauxite and zinc respectively, none of Australia’s bauxite refineries separate gallium as an individual product, and none of Australia’s zinc smelters report production of gallium, germanium or indium. It is unclear on whether they are being exported with the concentrates or discarded with tailings.

‘We’re aiming to fix this knowledge gap through predictively estimating the resource potential of gallium, germanium and indium in Australian zinc deposits, exploring and comparing conventional and modern technologies for the separation of gallium from bauxite, and evaluating Australia’s economic opportunities to produce gallium and germanium from existing processing operations.

‘Outputs from this will provide government and industry with evidence to support strategic decisions on appropriate pathways for Australian production of these by-product minerals.’

While Geoscience Australia is leading this project, Hub partners CSIRO and ANSTO will be involved through their own respective subprojects.

For example, CSIRO is assessing the techno-economic opportunities for Australia to produce these minerals from existing operations. ANSTO is also exploring the technical recovery of gallium from bauxite refining process liquors to determine the opportunity for Australia from existing bauxite refineries. 

‘One of the many great aspects of the R&D Hub is the fact that so much of the work is collaborative,’ Morgan says.

‘Bringing together the shared expertise from Australia’s leading science agencies will bolster the outputs of these projects, and provide industry and government with the robust data necessary to accelerate Australia’s critical minerals industry.’

Mineral Criticality assessment

Geoscience Australia’s mineral criticality assessment, funded for $3.2 million, is examining Australia’s mineral export and import vulnerabilities, and the extent to which minerals are critical for Australia’s economy, future sovereign capabilities, and security.

It will build an enduring mineral criticality assessment capability at Geoscience Australia to support evidence-based government decision-making, with relevance to international partnerships, trade and domestic policy.

To date, outputs from the criticality assessment have been used as one of the many factors that informed the December 2023 update of Australia’s Critical Minerals List. 

High-Purity Silica mineral systems study

The high-purity silica mineral systems study by Geoscience Australia is an in-depth study that will identify mineral systems and regions that have the greatest potential to supply raw feed stock material suitable to support the production of silicon. 

‘The study will be the first of its kind globally to focus specifically on the key geological and geodynamic factors that lead to the formation of HPS deposits,’ Morgan says.

‘Unlike previous mineral system models, which draw on an abundance of case studies and academic research, there is currently no existing mineral potential model for high-purity silica.

 ‘We’re piloting new approaches to help us develop new mineral system models and mineral potential maps for previously under-researched critical mineral deposit types, such as high-purity silica, to inform exploration.’

Outputs from this study will support the development of a downstream silicon industry in Australia, and stimulate exploration and discovery of suitable high-purity silica feedstocks through the creation of a new national quartz prospectivity map. High-purity silica is a high-grade raw ingredient used for semiconductors in electronics, computer processors, photovoltaics (solar panels), optical fibres, high-performance ceramics, and specialty glass applications.

Sampling and analysis of silica-bearing rocks has commenced using Geoscience Australia’s Repository and engagement with all state geological surveys to scope the potential of obtaining core library samples and explore collaboration opportunities. Field sampling will commence later this year. 

This project is also complementary to a high-purity silicon project being conducted by ANSTO, and is funded for $4.2 million.  

Strengthening Australia’s critical mineral industry

These research projects led by Geoscience Australia are designed to support the development of Australia’s critical mineral industry, and assessing the nation’s capability and potential for critical minerals.

‘We’re committed to helping inform the development and strengthening of Australia’s critical minerals industry, and this is just one way we are delivering on that commitment,’ Morgan says. 

Geoscience Australia is also contributing to several other Hub projects, including the Accelerating Development of Australia’s Rare Earth Resources project. Geoscience Australia has received $4 million out of the $13.9 million granted to ANSTO for this project.

While Australia’s rich endowment of high-grade rare earth elements and processing techniques are understood, greater knowledge of the mineralogy and processing routes is needed to unlock the potential of clay-hosted and ionic-adsorption rare earth element deposits.

Geoscience Australia will develop mineral potential maps for two to three priority rare earth element mineral systems, including clay-hosted rare earth element mineral systems. ANSTO will focus on examining different processing routes of clay-hosted rare earth element deposits, and CSIRO will study the ore body structure and mineralogy of clay-hosted rare earth element deposits to better understand deposit formation processes. All research projects for the R&D Hub will be completed by June 2026. 

Related Articles

Shifting sands

Shifting sands

By Anthony Fensom Australia’s silica sand mining industry is on a growth trajectory, with a takeover bid and a raft of new projects sparking...

read more

Be the first to find out when the next edition is released

* indicates required