Zinc critical for Australia’s economic and clean energy future 

By Dr Andrew Green, Executive Director, International Zinc Association

Zinc is an essential element in human health, as well as in key market
sectors – including agriculture, automobiles, consumer products, energy and infrastructure – and has contributed to Australia’s economy for more than 100 years. 

As a critical mineral, zinc recently earned a place on Australia’s new Strategic Materials List, which also includes aluminium, copper, nickel, phosphorous and tin. Due to its place on the Strategic Materials List and its part in powering the energy transition, zinc will play a growing and sustainable role in Australia’s economy.

Australia’s zinc production launched more than a century ago. According to the International Lead Zinc Study Group, Australia produced more than one million tonnes of zinc concentrate (zinc contained), and 443,000 tonnes of refined zinc metal in 2023 – from companies including Glencore, MMG and Nyrstar.

Once mined and processed, zinc’s primary use (approximately 60 per cent) is extending the service life of steel by protecting it from corrosion – a problem so consequential, it annually costs more than three per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (approximately $2.2 trillion). In addition to coating steel in automobiles, bridges, buildings, highways, railways, and tunnels, zinc protects vital renewable energy assets: solar arrays and wind turbines.

Solar arrays, which generate renewable energy from the sun, rely on zinc’s protective ability to extend the service life of the steel used to make ground-based photovoltaic arrays. In addition, zinc’s co-products gallium, germanium and indium are used in solar cells to create advanced semiconductor materials with unique properties that improve efficiency and performance. A 100-megawatt solar park – capable of powering 110,000 homes – requires approximately 240 tonnes of zinc. The demand for zinc in solar power is steadily rising, and is forecast to reach 162,000 tonnes by 2030.

As with solar power, zinc coatings ensure that wind turbines meet their intended design life. Zinc played a crucial role in the first offshore wind power system at Vindeby, located off the coast of Lolland, Denmark. This landmark project lasted six years longer than its planned life span, operating for 26 years while providing power to 2200 homes. Each wind turbine uses a substantial amount of zinc, and the demand for zinc in wind turbines is increasing each year. A 10-megawatt wind turbine requires, on average, four tonnes of zinc. Looking forward, the zinc required to protect wind power assets will consume 66,000 tonnes of zinc by 2030.

Beyond enhancing solar and wind energy systems, zinc is delivering another promising product in the energy transition: zinc batteries. These rechargeable batteries are necessary to store the energy generated by renewable energy sources, including the sun and wind, so that energy is available even when the sun does not shine, and the wind does not blow. Safe, sustainable, and boasting a secure supply, zinc batteries come in various chemistries, and can perform more than 20 years in temperatures ranging from -20 degrees Celsius and +40 degrees Celsius. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, zinc batteries are nonflammable and do not require the same level of monitoring and maintenance; over their lifetime, they provide long-term savings while operating at a low cost.

One of the most commercially successful zinc battery companies is Brisbane-based Redflow, formed in 2005 and a member of the International Zinc Associations’s (IZA’s) Zinc Battery Initiative. Redflow produces a zinc-bromine flow battery ideal for stationary storage applications – ranging from home‑based storage systems, to commercial- and industrial-scale storage. In addition, Redflow batteries provide energy storage for telecommunications infrastructure, as well as energy support to serve the electrical grid. While Redflow is well-established in Australia, it is making huge inroads in the United States, where it has been tapped to provide demonstration projects for the US Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and California Energy Commission. To date, Redflow boasts 285 active deployments storing a cumulative 2959 megawatts of stored energy with carbon offset of 3000 tonnes.

Beyond zinc’s role in the energy transition, zinc offers inherent sustainability, boasting the potential for nearly 100 per cent recyclability. Zinc recycling from galvanised steel has more than doubled over the past decade, with 60 per cent of all produced zinc still in use. Whether directly recycled or recovered when galvanised steel is recycled, zinc has become a major player in the circular economy.

Zinc’s inherent sustainability – coupled with its roles in protecting infrastructure, transportation and powering the energy transition – helped to secure its place on Australia’s Strategic Materials List, which includes metals deemed important for the global transition to net zero, as well as broader strategic applications. These six metals show geological resource potential in Australia, and are in demand by Australia’s strategic international partners. Zinc also recently joined germanium and indium on Australia’s list of critical material resources. The Australian Government closely monitors the production and processing of materials on the list, assuring that economic engines – such as Glencore, Nyrstar and Redflow – receive regulatory support to ensure continuous production. This strategic material status is imperative, given that the Fraunhofer Institute recently predicted that soaring zinc demand over the coming decades will double current zinc production annually by 2050.

The IZA supports Australia’s addition of zinc to its Strategic Materials List, a designation IZA is seeking from governing agencies worldwide to ensure a robust and continuous zinc supply chain. IZA advocates for additional supportive regulatory measures, including the streamlining of permitting processes, so that mining and smelting facilities can come online faster to meet the growing demand for zinc. Governments also can implement policies to promote mining a steady and sustainable supply of zinc, as well as to advance the expansion of renewable energy; and provide incentives for exploration mining and smelting through tax breaks, grants, and other financial incentives. These actions will enable Australia’s leading industries to continue to make their critical contributions to the energy transition and other sustainable markets in the zinc-related economy. 

Dr Andrew Green has served as the Executive Director of the International Zinc Association (IZA) since 2019. Prior to that, he was Director of IZA’s Zinc Nutrient Initiative, and its Environment, Health, and Sustainability program.

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