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What are critical minerals and why are we mining them in Queensland?

What are critical minerals and why are we mining them in Queensland?

Whether you call them critical minerals or new economy minerals, they are a hot topic across the globe. Now Queensland is committed to mining these resources to produce renewable technologies, securing our clean energy future.

What are critical minerals?

Critical minerals (also known as new economy or strategic minerals) are metallic or non-metallic elements found in the earth, with two key characteristics:

  • it is crucial for modern technologies, economies, or national security
  • its supply chains are at risk of being disrupted.

While there is no single critical minerals list used internationally, there is an overlap between the minerals many countries consider critical. This is due to local manufacturing and industry uses but is also influenced by an area’s geographic location and political allies, as opposed to global supply. Consequently, minerals included on these lists around the world change over time.

Australia has identified 26 critical resources, based on our geological deposits, plus the anticipated technology needs of our nation and trading partners, such as the United Kingdom and United States. Much of the technology which will facilitate the decarbonisation of industries and renewable energy in Queensland, relies on these minerals. These critical minerals also serve as key ingredients for our aerospace and defence industries.

What are rare earth elements?

Rare earth elements (REE) are a sub-category of 17 critical minerals. REE are not necessarily hard to find but are not usually concentrated enough to support commercial mining. That’s where the concept of secondary prospectivity comes in. REE can be recovered from the materials left-over once ore has been processed, known as tailings, or from mine waste sites. This is what occurred at the Mount Carbine waste expansion project.

What are the risks to supply of critical minerals?

The concept of critical minerals is not a new phenomenon. The United States first created a critical minerals list in 1917, to prioritise sourcing minerals for use in military equipment, during WWI. Critical minerals have become a widespread topical issue as more nations and industries make the transition to renewable energy.

Queensland has boasted a reputation for being rich in mineral resources since 1867. The majority of Queensland’s minerals are shipped from mine pits to ports. These exports are then used to create products which are imported back to the state. Yet, these supply chains are susceptible to natural disasters, conflicts and pandemics.

For example, while quartz and sand are plentiful in Australia, these base materials are refined into silicon by manufacturers in China, then made into computer chips in other nations like Japan before being sold on Australian shores.

However, as highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is the possibility of supply chains being disrupted when minerals are shipped offshore to develop the materials required.

What critical minerals are found in Queensland?

At least ten of Australia’s critical minerals are found in Queensland, including REE. Queensland is well-positioned to manufacture renewable energy equipment, with several key critical minerals required for solar, wind, electric vehicle (EV) and energy storage technologies found throughout the state:

Neodymium is just one example of a rare earth element found in the tailings of the Mary Kathleen uranium mine near Mount Isa, which is used for spindle magnets in wind turbines.

Are critical minerals the key to a greener future?

We are now on the verge of a new wave of economic growth, as countries across the world ramp up efforts to decarbonise their industries. The International Energy Agency expects demand for critical minerals will triple around the globe, under existing emissions reduction measures.

So the Queensland Government has strategies in place, including the Queensland new-industry development strategy (QNIDS) to grow our capacity to process minerals and produce technology onshore. This will not only secure critical mineral supply chains but generate opportunities for our local communities.

With over one in four Australian houses with rooftop solar, the country is already a leader in renewable electricity generation, but storing this excess energy to use when the sun isn’t shining is a challenge.

With its abundance of critical minerals, sun, wind, water,feedstocks and experience in mining, Queensland is poised to become a leader in the production of renewable energy technologies, including batteries. These factors combined with the Queensland Government’s CopperString 2032 project, connecting the North West Minerals Province (NWMP) to the national electricity grid, will ensure a clean, resilient and affordable energy system for Queenslanders.

How are critical minerals used and why are they important to our green future?

Critical minerals are crucial for modern society to function, because they are used to manufacture smart phones, fibre-optic cables, defence, aerospace and medical applications. They are central to Queensland’s clean energy future, because numerous critical minerals are required to manufacture renewable energy technologies.

We’re now using a broader variety of minerals, at greater volumes and demand will continue to increase as more economies decarbonise. For instance, a typical electric vehicle requires six times the mineral inputs of a car running on fossil fuel, and an offshore wind plant needs 13 times more minerals than a gas-fired plant.

What safeguards are there for the environment?

Australia’s wealth of minerals and strict environmental regulations have led the nation to become a favourite supplier among international markets. As environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials become increasingly important to both investors and consumers across the globe, including the European Union, Canada and the USA; it is essential Queensland’s existing industries decarbonise to ensure their future.

A bilateral agreement between Queensland and the Commonwealth of Australia aims to conserve the sustainable use of natural resources, ensure high environmental standards and protect the environment.

Large resource projects in Queensland must prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS), enabling the public and stakeholders to have their say on the potential environmental, economic and social impacts of the project.

How will we mine critical minerals in Queensland?

Queensland’s Critical Minerals Strategy outlines a place-based approach to critical minerals zones, so efforts will be tailored to enable collaboration, common-user infrastructure, as well as baseline environmental and social impact assessments.

There will be a dedicated program assisting industry to explore mine waste for remaining minerals, and a revised framework will facilitate secondary prospectivity.

The Queensland Government will partner with industry to enhance ESG capability, and will establish a research institute-government minerals alliance for the development of our circular economy, recycling, mineral discovery, extraction plus processing capabilities.

Why will critical minerals bring high-value jobs to Queensland?

Queensland is poised to enhance our critical minerals export potential and invest in value-adding industries including onshore processing and manufacturing, by developing our supply chains.

This will facilitate Queensland’s transition to renewable energy and battery storage, expected to support approximately 100,000 new jobs by 2040. This will be delivered via the $100 million Queensland Critical Minerals and Battery Technology Fund, to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies.

Last updated: 06 Dec 2023