FBICRC's New Pilot Plant

27th October 2021

Just as the Australian Government releases its plans to get the country to net-zero by 2050, The Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre (FBICRC) announces its own new project that will assist this transition- its flagship Cathode Precursor Production Pilot Plant in Western Australia. 

FBICRC said in a statement to its members that the plant "is an important step in providing technical capability towards the production of advanced battery materials on an industrial scale in WA," (FBICRC, 2021) they said. 

...But what does this mean? 

Valued at over AU $18 million, this investment will be put towards repurposing the existing BHP nickel sulphate pilot plant in WA, fit for bigger and better things. The WA government says this project will demonstrate Australia's capability of producing cost-effective, high-quality nickel, cobalt and manganese for producing precursor cathode active materials (PCAM). PCAM (as described by FBICRC) is a form of advanced chemical manufacturing and is a key process used in lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles.

FBICRC says that the pilot plant will endeavour to "produce these precursors, suitable for material qualification in EV value chains and build on the downstream opportunities created by the battery-grade chemical refineries being commissioned or constructed in WA," they said. Not only is this a revolutionary opportunity for EV/ battery technology, but also Australia, for seizing this new market opportunity. 

FBICRC's research and knowledge in this field suggest Australia could reap substantial benefits from expanding its presence in the battery value chain. The process of refining these battery materials is a relatively labouring task that is still being refined itself.  Many places in the world are unable to harness this opportunity like Australia can, meaning investment in the refining of battery chemicals and the manufacture of active materials, could potentially deliver $1.9 billion to the economy and support 9,300 jobs in 2030 (FBICRC, 2021).

Stedman Ellis, FBICRC's CEO said, "Australia currently exports the main commodities (lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt) in the form of mineral concentrates with little value-added from the manufacturing of lithium-ion battery materials retained in Australia... The construction and commissioning of refining plants at Kwinana and Kemerton is changing this picture, putting WA on the cusp of being able to meet the supply chain requirements for local manufacture of the nickel-rich NCM (nickel cobalt manganese) used in the booming global electric vehicle market,” Mr Ellis said.

Who's involved and when will results appear? 

For this endeavour to be successful, a variety of teams are banding together with FBICRC. The project bears a long list of stakeholders, including international companies and a number of SMEs (Small-Medium Enterprises), four research participants and the Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia (on behalf of the WA Government).

At this stage, we know Curtin University is leading the first step to producing the cathode precursor production at CSIRO’s Waterford facilities in Perth. The next step to convert cathode active materials will be led by the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane and finally, the University of Technology Sydney will provide expertise on advanced materials development. The installation and commissioning of the Pilot Plant are due to take place in early 2022. Following its completion, an 18-month pilot campaign period is on the agenda for FBICRC and its partners. 

If you wish to read more about the project and the full list of project contributors, click here