November 2nd 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Murray-Darling Basin Plan based on debunked science

CANBERRA OBSERVED What does it take to knock down GetUp?

TECHNOLOGY Beijing's push to dominate world supply of electronics components

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Hong Kong protestors speak candidly to NCC, as Xi threat calls Tiananmen to mind

LIFE ISSUES Of foetuses and fallacies

LIFE ISSUES To hold the hand ... an answer to euthanasia

LIFE ISSUES Melbourne and Brisbane on the march

QUEENSLAND AFA/NCC forum addresses euthanasia legislation

THE ENVIRONMENT Fresh visit to the Great Barrier Reef in its death throes

COLD WAR HISTORY Was the Vietnam War worth fighting?

HUMOUR England United, and all that ... but with Hume?

MUSIC Usage and abusage: Words what got rhythm

CINEMA AND CULTURE The mirror of villainy

BOOK REVIEW Eclectic example of genre of decline

BOOK REVIEW Brief battle a model for combined arms


RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ABC survey finds majority agree there is unfair discrimination against religious Australians

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Beijing's push to dominate world supply of electronics components

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, November 2, 2019

Having watched China become the world’s top manufacturing nation, Western nations, particularly the United States, Japan and South Korea, are increasingly concerned by Beijing’s efforts to dominate three sectors vital to the future of modern society: the production of rare-earth metals, lithium-ion battery production, and production of high-grade silicon, vital for both flat-sheet solar panels and semiconductors.

Of particular concern is China’s dominance in both rare-earth production and lithium-ion batteries.These are all strategic materials, vital for computing, finance, digital communications and telephone services, among other things.

The rare earths consist of a group of 17 elements discovered in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were long regarded as scientific curiosities, with few practical applications.

However, the growth of the electronics industry has changed all that. Originally used as catalysts and in the manufacture of ceramics and glass, rare earths are now used very widely.

Rare-earth elements are used in the electric motors of hybrid and electric vehicles, generators in wind turbines, hard-disc drives, portable electronics, microphones and speakers.

As the world’s largest manufacturer, China requires large quantities of these metals to meet its industrial needs.

Controlled production

However, China has moved to a position of controlling global production. As a result of government policy, China is by far the world’s largest producer of rare- earth metals and accounts for about 70 per cent of global production. The country has some 37 per cent of global reserves.

In 2018, its domestic output of 120,000 tonnes was up from 105,000 tonnes the previous year. Global production was around 170,000 tonnes.

The regime in Beijing controls China’s production. Producers in the country must adhere to strict quotas. The full-year quota for mining this year is set at 120,000 tonnes, while the quota for smelting and separation is 115,000 tonnes.

Australia is the second largest producer of rare earths, producing 20,000 tonnes a year. But it has no high-level production plant, so it exports metal concentrates to China for processing.

Even the United States, the world’s third largest producer, exports most of its rare-earth minerals to China for high-level processing.

The second area where China is seeking to control global production is in lithium, a key component in lithium-ion batteries, which are used in computers, smartphones and electric vehicle batteries. Although Japanese electronics company Sony commercialised the lithium-ion battery, China has come to dominate production.

Chinese manufacturer Tianqi Lithium recently paid more than $A6 billion to become the second-largest shareholder in Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM), a Chilean mining company, and effectively controls the company with 24 per cent of the shares.

Tianqi already owns 51 per cent of Australia’s largest lithium miner, Talison Lithium, which has the world’s largest mine at Greenbushes, located 250 kilometres south of Perth and 80 kilometres south-east of the port of Bunbury.

In July 2018, Tianqi announced that it was investing an additional $516 million to increase lithium production at Greenbushes.

The investment involves the construction of a new concentrator plant at the mine, which Talison said would be capable of producing 520,000 tonnes a year of chemical-grade lithium concentrate.

The new plant is expected to be commissioned in the last quarter of 2020, Talison said.

Tianqi is also constructing a 24,000-tonne/year lithium hydroxide plant in Kwinana, just 40 kilometres from Perth, and will export the output to China.

American mining company Albemarle, which holds a 49 per cent stake in Talison, is planning a lithium hydroxide manufacturing plant outside of Bunbury, capable of producing up to 100,000 tonnes per year of lithium hydroxide from five process trains of 20,000 tonnes per year. Most of its output will also go to China.

Tianqi has effective control over nearly half the current global production of lithium, a critical component in battery technology.

The third area of concern is China’s growing role in silicon chips, traditionally dominated by Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Pure polycrystalline silicon wafers are useful for photovoltaic panels. Dislocation-free and extremely flat single-crystal silicon wafers are required in the manufacture of computer chips.

China is the world’s largest manufacturer of silicon, and is expanding its production of silicon wafers at a faster rate than any other country.

While Australia and the U.S. have talked about the problem, no one has yet been willing to do anything.

What is required for Australia’s national security, and that of our Asian and Western allies, is to build the capacity to manufacture rare-earth metals, lithium and ultra-pure silicon to the level required by industry, at a price comparable with that coming from China.

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