Australian mining is shaping the future of the solar industry. With an abundance of resources, Australia has become one of the largest producers of bauxite, iron ore, gold, lead, lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper in the world. All of these minerals are essential for the development of new trends and growing markets like the solar industry.
Aussie miners shaping solar and li-ion battery future
Australia has multiple resources and a well-developed mining industry. We produce 19 minerals in significant amounts from nearly 400 operating mines.
Mostly, Aussie minerals and metals are being sold to China, Japan, South Korea and India. Non-ferrous metals are shipped to the EU. Coal and iron ore are mostly traded to the consumer on a quarterly contract basis. Copper, lead, zinc and nickel are traded internationally on the London Metal Exchange, as well as Comex and NYMEX exchanges in the United States and the Shanghai Futures Exchange in China.
Australia owns the largest resources of gold, iron ore, nickel and lead in the world, along with abundant resources of cobalt, copper, lithium and coal.
Australian mining & the minerals used for traditional solar panels
One of the most abundant minerals on Earth is silicon and that’s one of the main reasons why it was originally selected for the manufacturing of solar panels.
Silicon is a mineral compound that is present in silica sand, that actually constitutes the silica dioxide which is commonly associated with fine dust.
Australia has abundant silica sand resources as well, and has been a producer of silica since the 1930’s, particularly from Australian mines like the Cape Flattery in Queensland (the largest silica sand mine in the world!), the Coonarr Creek mine – in Queensland as well, and the Kemerton Silica Sand mine in Western Australia that has produced high quality sand for the Asian market since 1996.
As silicon is still the leading element in the manufacturing of polycrystalline and monocrystalline solar panels, the increasing growth in the solar market is related to amazing opportunities and profits that can be obtained in Australia.
Lithium is a highly flammable and reactive compound and it is not common in nature. The extraction consists of the injection of water into the underground that generally contains potassium, boron, sulphate and lithium. Then the water is pumped back to the surface and is stored in large water deposits called saltars. Later on, the sun evaporates the water in the saltars and leaves great mountains and concentrations of lithium, potassium, sodium, magnesium and other minerals.
Afterwards, the ore is transported to the refinery where the many minerals including lithium, are separated through chemical processes. Here you can find an explanation video of the whole process https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3CrFR1Jk1w
Australia is the largest producer of lithium in the world. Actually, the production of the last year was estimated to be at 18,700 MT, with an increase of over 34% from the production in 2016.
The biggest lithium mines include Greenbushes (owned by Tianqi Lithium and Albemarle). It is the largest and longest operating mine and is located in Western Australia along with Pilgangoora and Mount Marion which are also important Australian mines located in West Australia. Moreover, the country owns important lithium reserves that are only surpassed by Chile and China. However, in matters of production, no one beats the Aussies.
Lithium is the main mineral used in lithium-ion batteries and EVs, but it is also used for glass, metallurgy, optics and even medicine. With the large deployment of lithium-ion batteries across the world for electronics and storage for solar, and especially with the large-scale battery storage projects from Tesla, the lithium business is growing, and Australia owns the biggest slice of the pie.
The elements that are used in the industry to dope the silicon atom (a technique applied to the silicon layer in order to facilitate the flow of electrons by contaminating the silicon structure with a donor and an acceptor of electrons) are phosphorus and boron. Boron is used as the acceptor and phosphorus is used as the donor.
Australia has two main phosphate mines, the largest one is located in Queensland at the so-called Phosphate Hill, and the other one is located in the offshore land of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Phosphate Hill is a world-class mine with easy access while the Christmas Island mine produces quality phosphate rock mainly exported to the Asia-Pacific region. There are other phosphate mines in Australia, however, they are not as big as these two.
Heavy consumption of phosphate in the world in the last decade has drastically reduced the world reserves of this mineral, therefore it is expected that these mines will become more valuable over time.
Bauxite is the basic mineral used to manufacture aluminium. Since solar panels have aluminium frames, bauxite is also the main mineral used in their manufacture.
Australia is the world’s leading producer of bauxite with five principal mines in operation and seven refineries that produce alumina which is then sent to one of six smelters that manufacture the aluminium.
Australia is one of the few countries that fully integrate all the processes to manufacture aluminium, from mining and refining through to smelting and fabrication of the product.
All of this is achieved through some of the world’s largest mining companies like Rio Tinto, BHP and Alcoa with the largest bauxite mines in the world like the Weipa (QLD) owned by Rio Tinto Alcan and Huntly (WA) which produces 23 million tons of bauxite annually and is also the largest mine in the world owned by Alcoa.
Bauxite is one of Australia’s most wanted resources and has tremendous potential to be used in many areas of the solar industry, including solar frames, mounting systems and even PV wires.
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This is one of the country’s main export industries. The mining of this mineral takes place in Western Australia, within the Pilbara region, where iron ore is taken from the mine and crushed before being loaded onto trucks to be transported to trains that carry up to 25 thousand tons in one journey to a port site on the coast.
As the largest exporter of iron ore in the world, Australia (or rather Western Australia) exported over 360 million tons of iron ore back in 2009. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton carry out this large mining industry in the Mount Tom Price mine, the Western Turner Syncline mine, Marandoo, Eastern Range and other mines in the country.
Iron ore is important for the solar industry because the ultimate product after passing through a refinery is steel, which is the strongest, most versatile and most durable of all metals. Therefore it is used for the mounting frame, mounting systems and even the foundations of the grounded PV systems.
Australia has tremendous amounts of natural resources that turn the country into a jewel for the solar industry in Asia.
Actually, as the greatest manufacturer and producer of iron ore and bauxite, many solar frames, mounting structures, foundations and even PV wires are made with Australian resources.
This article only refers to traditional solar panels, but if you look into other technologies like thin film that require copper and cadmium, along with other solar cell technologies that use tellurium and titanium dioxide, you will find that Australian mining also plays a remarkable role as one of the most important countries in the world for the solar mining industry.