NAIF may fund renewables-powered manganese metals project in W.A.

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NAIF to consider funding for ground-breaking project that could see Australia start exporting “renewable metals”, using cheap wind and solar to refine and process ores.

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Wind and solar at Coober Pedy. Photo credit: Christian Sprogoe
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The federal government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility has agreed to conduct due diligence on a ground-breaking mining project in Western Australia that could use a renewables-dominated power source to provide cheap electricity to produce manganese metals.

A whole series of projects have recently been announced that propose to use renewables to create “green hydrogen” and export the fuel to big Asian economies such as Japan and China, including a 15GW project in the Pilbara, a newly announced 5GW project near Kalbarri and South Australia’s plans to create a 100 per cent renewable hydrogen economy.

There is a also a school of thought that suggests using that using cheap wind and solar to value-add in Australia, and then export “green metals” might make more economic sense as it overcomes the significant transport costs of hydrogen.

The Butcherbird manganese project in the Pilbara is one of those.

At this year’s Energy and Mines conference in Perth, project developer Element25, a listed company, outlined the potential to use cheap wind and solar to provide up to 90 per cent of the projects energy needs, and to process the ore into managanese metals, rather than simply export the raw materials.

CEO Justin Brown told the conference the company is looking to exploit a huge 260 million tonne resource of manganese, known as the Butcherbird project, about 100km south of Mt Newman. But with the current gas supply, it could not hope to add value such as refining.

However, analysis done by Advisian and others suggested that using a mixture of 50 per cent wind and solar will deliver a competitive price, and a 90 per cent share of renewables for the 100MW power plant it needs could slash the cost of power by half, and allow it to compete with Chinese refiners and “export renewable energy as metals.”

The company says that each tonne of metal requires around 6.5MWh – more than the annual average consumption of a home – so access to cheap power is critical.

Element25  says that using renewables, along with new CSIRO “electro-winning” technology could help Australia embed renewable energy into numerous refined products for export, including manganese, copper, lead, zinc, and nickel.

“This positions Australia to become a leader in renewable energy exports,” it said, and would be a “viable alternative/adjunct to hydrogen exports which are currently a hot topic.”

The other product from the project would be high purity manganese sulphate that is used in Li-Ion battery cathodes.

On Wednesday, Element 25 announced that NAIF had completed a “strategic assessment” of the project and would now proceed to the due diligence phase for potential debt financing.

“E25 provided NAIF with strategic assessment information detailing the benefits that will flow from the Butcherbird Manganese Project and its associated infrastructure to the local communities in the Pilbara region,” the company said in a statement.

  • “E25 … looks forward to work with NAIF to achieve a successful funding outcome for the world class Butcherbird High Purity Manganese Project that has the potential to provide benefit to the local community for decades into the future.”

The company is also conducting its own pre-feasibility study and looking for funding solutions for the project.

“It is also worth noting that manganese was identified as a critical mineral in the Australian Government’s recent Critical Minerals Strategy1 which bodes well for long term demand for this important steel and battery raw material.”

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