Expansion and independence: around Australia’s latest rare earth mines
Could a new wave of rare earth mines and project expansions build an independent rare earths industry for Australia? JP Casey profiles the latest facilities.
are earths have been something of a buzzword in the mining industry for years. But, with global annual production now in the hundreds of thousands of tons, the title of “rare” is becoming less accurate with every passing day.
Australian miner Arafura Resources notes that global consumption of rare earth oxides reached around 167,000 tonnes in 2020.The company expects this figure to balloon to around 280,000 tonnes a decade later, with the minerals occupying a critical component of increasingly commonplace technologies, such as mobile phones and clean energy infrastructure.
Australia could be one of the main beneficiaries of this dramatic increase in demand, where private companies and local governments alike are eager to expand the country’s nascent rare earths production.
In 2021, Australia produced the fourth-most rare earths in the world. It’s total annual production of 19,958 tonnes remains significantly less than the mammoth 152,407 tonnes produced by China, but a dramatic improvement over the 1,995 tonnes produced domestically in 2011.
The dominance of China in the rare earths space has also encouraged other countries, notably the US, to look further afield for rare earth deposits to diversify their supply of the increasingly vital minerals. With the US eager to ringfence rare earth production within its allies as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, including potentially allowing the Department of Defence to invest in Australian rare earths, there could be an unexpected windfall for Australian rare earths producers.
However, the question remains: can Australia, or indeed any country, develop a rare earths industry independent of Chinese dominance? A raft of new projects and ambitious expansion works could be Australia’s best answer to this conundrum.
// Main image: Coober Pedy in South Australia. Credit: Adwo via Shutterstock