Global miner BHP will hold on to the Australian nickel operations it previously put up for sale, while Rio Tinto is working on copper and lithium projects as the mining industry bets on demand for electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
The biggest mining companies say they are well positioned to provide the metals needed for the shift to EV technology, although they acknowledge the political risks and environmental issues in some of the countries where the best supplies are found.
Nickel is in demand to allow cars to travel further on a single charge. Using more nickel also cuts costs by reducing the use of expensive cobalt, a mainstay of current EV batteries.
Western Australia is rich in nickel sulphides which can be chemically processed into sulphate, prompting BHP to retain its Nickel West operations after several attempts to sell the business.
“Developments such as climate change and dramatic shifts in technology present both challenges and opportunities,” CEO Andrew Mackenzie told the BAML mining conference in Barcelona, that was broadcast over the Internet.
He said Nickel West offered the potential for high returns because of the expected growth in battery markets and the relative scarcity of quality nickel sulphide supply.
Other minerals needed in a more electrified, lower-carbon economy include copper and lithium.
Rio Tinto has a major copper expansion project in Mongolia and has discovered deposits in Australia, where it said initial results were promising.
It also has a giant deposit of jadarite, a lithium-containing mineral unique to Serbia.
On Tuesday, CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques told the Barcelona conference a study on the Serbian deposits should be completed in around 18 months, after which the company would update the market.
“There are 26 steps to be able to extract the lithium,” he said, adding pricing was an issue, but Rio was becoming more comfortable with the market.
Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg said that significant new sources of battery minerals would be needed, combined with “thrifting,” an industry term for battery makers’ efforts to limit the use of expensive minerals, such as cobalt.
Glencore has always said it is in pole position for a battery revolution as it commands a major chunk of the world’s cobalt supply through its operations in Democratic Republic of Congo.
But Glasenberg also flagged a number of obstacles, including higher risks, high capital costs and a lack of new, accessible supplies.
Moody’s on Monday upgraded Glencore, citing its sustained financial performance, but said its rating had been depressed by exposure to environmental risks and volatile countries, chiefly Congo.