New Rare Earth Projects Help Australia Decouple From China Supply Reliance

June 22, 2020 Updated: June 23, 2020

In the past week, two Australian rare earth mining firms have advanced key projects that mark progress toward that nation’s goal of decoupling its rare earth supply chains from Chinese control.

In November last year, the Australian government signaled its intent to firm up the security of both nations by signing an agreement with the United States to begin exchanging information on critical minerals and establishing supply chains. Since then a flurry of new projects has started or been fast-tracked by the government.

This comes against the backdrop of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) estimated control of almost 63 percent of global rare earth production. Rare earth minerals are integral to the manufacture of high-tech products including fiber-optic cables, magnets, lithium batteries, and military equipment.

Concerns have been mounting that the CCP will leverage its control of rare earths in the event of a geopolitical dispute.

Hastings Project: From Mines to Magnets

On June 17, Perth-based Hastings Technology Metals received government approval for the construction of its Yangibana Rare Earths Project in Western Australia (WA), subject to satisfying environmental conditions.

The plant will process the rare earth minerals neodymium and praseodymium.

Both minerals are vital components in the manufacture of permanent magnets used in wind turbines, robotics, and electric vehicles.

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Wind turbines are viewed at a wind farm in Taft, Texas, on March 27, 2015. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The extraction and processing of rare earth is a complex and costly process that can result in large amounts of excess polluting chemicals.

In China, authorities have in the past been able to leverage the country’s loose environmental and pollution controls, to lower the cost of their minerals and compete with western firms. The cost to local Chinese towns however has been devastating, with excess pollution, damaged agricultural land, and serious health concerns in neighboring towns.

“The regulatory standards set by the WA government also provide the international community … assurance that the extraction component of the rare earths supply chain is undertaken in an environmentally responsible manner,” Andrew Reid, chief operating officer of Hastings in WA said in a statement.

Hastings aims to be the next “significant producer” of the minerals outside of China. In 2017, China controlled 80 percent of neodymium production globally.

Hastings will be a major provider to international German automotive equipment supplier Schaeffler Technologies AG for the next 10 years.

Infinity Lithium: Riding the Euro Electric Car Wave

Perth-based Infinity Lithium Corp. will receive funding for its Spain-based lithium mining project, San Jose Lithium.

This will be the first lithium project to secure funding from the European Union-backed (EU) investment body EIT InnoEnergy, according to a June 18 announcement.

The funding will come in three separate tranches for different phases of the project.

Infinity is hoping to capitalize on the European Union’s push to develop its electric car industry and push to establish a “strategic value chain” for lithium.

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A man prepares to drive a Totem-Mobi electric car-sharing vehicle parked at a charging station in Marseille, France, on March 6, 2018. (Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissie//File Photo)

Lithium is critical for the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries that go into many electric vehicle brands, including Tesla and BMW.

The EU is the second-largest market for the mineral globally after China. However, the EU currently imports all its lithium, with no supply chains within the union.

Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Investment Bank said in the announcement that the EU will create “a dedicated alliance aimed at critical raw materials including lithium. Europe will need 18 times more lithium by 2030 compared to its current supply.”

In late April, a Chinese firm looking to invest in Australian lithium miner AVZ Minerals was advised by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) its bid would be blocked on the grounds it was “contrary to the national interest” and contrary to the growth of “Australia’s critical minerals sector.”

The Chinese firm and AVZ later revamped the agreement to avoid scrutiny from FIRB.