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Go8 Submission to Australia’s National Battery Strategy

Department of Industry, Science and Resources

The Group of Eight (Go8) is pleased to provide feedback on the Government’s National Battery Strategy issues paper.

Please note that this submission represents the views of the Go8 network and member universities may wish to make their own individual submissions. The Go8 also consents for this submission to be published in full.

The Go8 welcomes the Government’s commitment to establish a national strategy to support Australia’s battery manufacturing industries.  It will provide the much-needed framework to position Australia as a renewable energy powerhouse, from exporting critical minerals through to innovative renewable energy technologies and solutions.

This measure will help ensure we can reach our emissions targets as well as support our national prosperity and security. As the world moves towards net zero, energy storage systems will become essential. Australia’s vast deposits of critical minerals provides our nation with a competitive advantage but to fully capture that economic opportunity, we must do more than merely dig these resources up – we must innovate to move up the value chain.

The Government must prioritise and coordinate investment in university R&D to support the development of new and emerging battery technologies to secure Australia’s position in the global clean energy economy.  

The Go8 represents Australia’s eight leading research-intensive universities, with seven of its members ranked in the world’s top 100 universities. Collectively, the Go8 undertakes 70 per cent of all Australian university-based research and invests $7.7 billion in research each year. The Go8 has strong capabilities in the advanced technologies needed to power our nation’s renewable energy future, including innovative battery technologies and battery management systems.

While the issues paper seeks input on the broader policy agenda of developing Australia’s battery manufacturing capabilities, this submission is deliberately focused on the opportunities to optimise our research to drive innovation, commercialisation, economic growth, and support strategic partnerships.

Recommendations:

Key recommendations:

– That the Government leverage the recently established National Reconstruction Fund to support the battery materials value chain as well as battery technology R&D.

– That the Government recognise the important role universities play, and will continue to play, in developing both the clean energy technologies and skilled workforce needed to grow Australia’s battery industries.

– That the Government’s strategy identifies ways to increase industry awareness and connectivity to research and innovation, both locally and internationally, to attract clean energy investments as well as prioritise policies to support all levels of research through the full innovation pipeline.

– That the Government complement its investment in a Battery Manufacturing Precinct with an expansion to programs focused on building partnerships between universities and industry and delivering innovative battery technologies. 

–  That the Government’s strategy include a chapter to support capability and capacity building with our key strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Moving up the value chain – harnessing Australia’s existing advantages in research and innovation

As the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen MP said, “Australia has all the ingredients to become a renewable energy superpower[1].”

Australia is a nation spoilt for sunlight, home to a range of minerals in critical supply around the world, and ideally positioned in the fast-growing Indo-Pacific region. Australia is also home to world-class universities and researchers who are and will continue to develop the new technologies needed to deliver our nation a competitive advantage in the global race for energy storage solutions. For example:

  • University of Sydney’s Professor, Thomas Maschmeyer (2020 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation) invented next generation zinc-bromide batteries – a safe, affordable and recyclable alternative to current lithium-ion batteries for distributed stationary storage,[2] as well as a new inexpensive, very high energy density and safe generation of lithium-silicon-sulfur batteries for mobile and grid applications.Not only do these batteries present an important environmental breakthrough, but they’re also supporting high-tech green jobs and industries, and helping to diversify Australia’s supply chain.
  • University of Queensland researchers, Professor Michael Yu, Dr Xiaodan Huang and postdoctoral student Yueqi Kong, have built greener alternatives to lithium-ion batteries through their world-leading graphene aluminium ion batteries. Tests have shown these batteries have a battery life of up to three times that of current leading lithium-ion batteries and can be charged up to seventy times faster.[3] Graphene batteries are less expensive than lithium-ion and could provide Australia with a new export market.[4]
  • UNSW’s researchers, Dr. Branislav Hredzak and Prof. John Fletcher, have been collaborating with BenAn Energy in developing competitive, low-complexity, and low-cost cell-level and module-level active and passive battery management systems tailored to BenAn Energy’s aqueous sodium salt chemistry. The battery management system improves the performance and competitiveness of BenAn Energy technology, which, unlike lithium-ion batteries, reduces dependency on precious and rare mineral and metal resources, offers safe operation, and a sustainable life cycle. Additional research in this area has led to 3 IP disclosures and possible spin-out and joint venture opportunities.

This diversity of battery technologies will stand Australia in good stead as we compete globally for renewable energy solutions. While lithium-ion is dominant now, other technologies that service niche markets could become more competitive if they can be supported to reach scale. We have an emerging opportunity that requires significant and sustained investment in university research, so that our researchers can bring their ideas from the bench into prototypes, and then into mass-production and export.  

The Government’s commitment to reduce emissions sends a strong signal to industry that Australia is open for investment in clean energy technologies and innovations – however the challenge ahead will be to build industry awareness, both locally and internationally in Australia’s world-class universities and our strong R&D capabilities in new and emerging battery technologies, as well as offer attractive incentives to lure investment.  

This must be a priority. Governments around the world are moving fast to scale-up battery industries. This includes the United States (US) with their Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,which has turbo-charged their development effort by coordinating industry and academia through targeted, technology pathway funding. The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese MP, has also acknowledged the challenges presented to Australia because of the Inflation Reduction Act, stating “the Act will, in a global economic environment, mean that it is harder, or that we’re competing to attract that capital here in Australia.”

For this reason, the Government should leverage the recently established National Reconstruction Fund (NRF) to provide certainty to investors and industry, both locally and internationally. The NRF should support a battery materials value chain as well as battery technology development. Australia does not currently support this at scale, and industry is looking elsewhere for grant funding. For example, the following Australian-backed companies have already secured more than US$2.8 billion[5] in grants and loans from the US Government to expand production of critical minerals for technology, including:

  • Ioneer, which secured a $700 million loan from the US Department of Energy for lithium production in Nevada.[6]  
  • Novonix, which will receive $240 million for a new plant in Tennessee to produce synthetic graphite for lithium-ion batteries.[7]
  • Syrah, which was awarded $350 million to expand its natural graphite facility in Louisiana. [8]

While Australia cannot be expected to match the scale of US investment, we can draw from this model to kickstart a local battery industry, particularly as it relates to R&D funding along the full innovation pipeline.

Recommendation: That the Government leverage the recently established National Reconstruction Fund to support the battery materials value chain as well as battery technology R&D.

Turning our innovative ideas into opportunity – commercialising research and innovation

The issues paper notes that investments made through the NRF could support the commercialisation of prospective battery capabilities. The Go8 pushes above its weight in commercialisation of research, generating the largest share of commercialisation revenue for the sector in Australia and attracting industry funding for research that is twice that of the rest of the sector combined.

In 2020, the Go8 universities collectively earned $95.5 million in research commercialisation income, more than twice that of the CSIRO ($43.3 million). One member alone (the University of Queensland) earned over $64 million in commercialisation revenue, which is 50 per cent more than CSIRO.

However, as highlighted in the Go8’s NRF submission, there is an urgent need for targeted investment in university research at earlier stages of commercialisation, specifically at the proof-of-concept stage. This is the stage that converts breakthrough research into opportunities suitable for business or venture capital investment and is also the stage where there is the greatest chance of ideas and entrepreneurs falling into the so-called ‘valley of death.’ Currently, there are limited funds available for this stage of commercialisation and universities are forced to top up government research funding – largely from international student revenue.

For the Government to effectively support the commercialisation of prospective battery capabilities, it must first support the development of new technologies and innovations through the various Technology Readiness Levels. This must include support for basic research as well as applied research. It must never be a case of either/or. Anything less is shortsighted.

Without specific support to overcome the ‘valley of death,’ technological developments and innovations will either remain confined to storage cabinets in university labs, or researchers will go overseas to commercialise their discoveries. The Government must therefore identify ways to increase industry awareness and connectivity to research and innovation, both locally and internationally, to attract clean energy investment, as well as support research through the full innovation pipeline.

Recommendation: That the Government’s Strategy identifies ways to increase industry awareness and connectivity to research and innovation, both locally and internationally, to attract clean energy investment as well as prioritise policies to support all levels of research through the full innovation pipeline.

Encouraging investment to grow our battery industries – advantages of a research and industry precincts model

The issues paper identifies that Australia should do more to encourage crossover and knowledge sharing opportunities at universities to improve manufacturing of battery products. The Go8 endorses this approach – our universities host a range of institutes and research centres to support multidisciplinary work in critical areas, including the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland; the UNSW Energy Institute; and the Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions at the Australian National University.

In addition, the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia, and the University of Adelaide are all participants in the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre (CRC)[9], which brings together around 70 partners spanning academia, industry and government to develop new battery technologies.

However, there remains much to be done to strengthen knowledge sharing between university researchers and industry to solve complex problems. As the Go8 has previously stressed, there is a need for positive incentives for university researchers to work directly with industry, as well as support to enable industry to understand and access the opportunities that academic research present. [10] This could be achieved through work exchange or joint placement programs, and stronger investments in innovation precincts to promote collaboration and commercialisation opportunities, such as CRCs. The Government’s $100 million investment in a Battery Manufacturing Precinct should include an expansion of existing programs that facilitate collaboration and long-term partnerships between universities and industry, including the Future Battery Industries CRC. This would facilitate the skills development and expertise needed to grow existing industries and ensure a pipeline of skilled workers and researchers for emerging technologies.  

Recommendation: That the Government complement its investment in a Battery Manufacturing Precinct with an expansion to programs focused on building partnerships between universities and industry and delivering innovative battery technologies. 

Creating the enabling environment for industry growth – universities key to developing the technologies and workforce we need

A skilled workforce will be a key enabler for Australia’s clean energy future, including in next generation battery industries. A research partnership between the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland, Princeton University and Nous Group estimated that Australia will need an extra one million jobs in the clean energy sector to achieve our nation’s energy targets.[11] Both VET and higher education will be vital to equip these new workers to succeed. While the Go8 endorses the Government’s commitment to map the clean energy workforce through vehicles such as Jobs and Skills Australia and notes the investment in clean energy apprenticeships, there is a need to consider and coordinate skills development across education and training sectors as well as migration settings. The level of human capital needed to service the clean energy economy will only continue to increase and diversify as new technologies come to market, and the clean energy workforce Australia needs cannot be provided by the VET sector alone.  

With the National Skills Commission forecasting that more than nine out of ten jobs to be created will require post-secondary education and that jobs in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are expected to grow at twice the rate of non-STEM jobs, it will be Australia’s world-class universities which will be critical in meeting the demand for highly skilled workers.

For example, Go8 universities collectively educate 42 per cent of Australia’s higher education engineering graduates, with seven of our members ranked in the top 100 universities globally for engineering. It therefore matters within the Go8 how best to achieve what Australia needs and in strong partnership with industry. With our strong STEM profile, Go8 universities will be essential in supporting the flow of talent into new renewable energy industries, as well as delivering the reskilling and upskilling opportunities for workers in traditional energy industries.

Further, the university research workforce will be essential to the clean economy for two key reasons. Firstly, only a research trained workforce can understand the clean energy research undertaken around the world and facilitate its uptake here in Australia, and secondly, be able to directly create the new battery technologies and innovations needed to support our clean energy transition.

Finally, as global demand increases for a highly skilled workforce in renewable energy and battery industries, attracting and retaining expertise will remain a challenge. This will be complicated by overlapping skills shortages in other critical jobs and industries, such as engineering.[12] The Go8 has advocated previously for the introduction of a targeted high potential individual (HPI) visa, which would help attract and retain world leading university researchers and educators, as well as enabling international PhD students to remain in Australia once they have graduated.

Therefore, the Strategy should consider how Australia’s skills and training sectors and migration policies can be coordinated in the interests of supporting our nation’s existing, emerging, and future battery industries.   

Recommendation: That the Government recognise the important role universities play, and will continue to play, in developing both the clean energy technologies and skilled workforce needed to grow Australia’s battery industries.

Other

The Go8 makes the following additional points in response to questions raised in the issues paper:

  • The issues paper asks what areas of the global battery supply chain Australia should focus on. By leveraging the Go8’s strong research capabilities to move up the value chain, Australia can and should focus on new technologies to service the range of batteries needed to power the clean energy economy. This should include measures to drive costs down to make renewable energy more affordable for Australian businesses and households, and to accelerate the clean energy transition for our key allies and trading partners, such as ASEAN and our Pacific Island neighbours.   

Importantly, diversifying global supply chains in renewable energy and batteries will not only boost national prosperity but also strengthen stability and security in the Indo-Pacific, supporting a key pillar in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

For this reason, the Strategy should include a chapter to support capability and capacity building with our key strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific. For example, the Strategy could support joint research in technologies that work best in tropical climates to improve their reliability and uptake in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition, and as highlighted in the recent Go8 and ASEAN Committee in Canberra Strategic Dialogue, there are areas of complementarity between Indonesia and Australia when it comes to electric vehicle battery development and production. Indonesia has released a plan to support an electrical vehicle industry and there are opportunities for Australia to help train the workforce and deliver the skills needed for Indonesia to realise this plan.

Recommendation: The Government’s Strategy should include a chapter to support capability and capacity building with our key strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific.

  • The issues paper also asks what can be done to give confidence that Australian product safety risks are effectively understood, mitigated and managed.

If Australia chooses to manufacture batteries, it will also have to build battery management systems. The market for batteries is such that customers wish to purchase a battery system which includes the necessary “smarts” to manage the battery safely through its lifetime. Without a battery management system, a modern, fully-charged battery is simply a hazard and a risk that customers do not wish to take. Australia’s battery sector requires appropriate testing and verification infrastructure where researchers can safely test the limits of batteries.  Investing in this infrastructure will ensure Australia can continue to uphold its reputation for strong product safety.

  • The issues paper asks how governments and industry can ensure circular economy principles are incorporated into the life cycles of batteries made and used in Australia.

Lithium batteries are commonly used in a range of consumer products, from mobile phones to laptops and tablets. As demand grows for these products, so too does the demand for the critical minerals needed to build the batteries that power them. Lithium batteries used in mobile phones have a limited lifespan. Similarly, the lithium-ion batteries used in electronic vehicles degrade over time. However, the components within these products are recoverable and highly valuable.

As the paper notes, recycling rates for lithium-ion batteries in Australia are under 10 per cent, which means there is potential to recover 90 per cent of lithium-ion materials by developing higher value recycling processes. Governments, battery industries and researchers should work together to address the barriers in the recycling of lithium-ion batteries.

Government should also collaborate with industry to provide incentives for consumers to dispose of their waste so that the raw materials can be reused and recycled. This would promote circular economy principles and a more sustainable approach to battery manufacturing, while supporting new jobs and industries, including in the regions.

There is great potential and opportunity for the Government to support new jobs and industry through the application of waste-reducing research. For example, researchers at UNSW’s SMaRT Centre, led by Professor Veena Sahajwalla, have strong capabilities in researching and developing innovative, ‘circular’ solutions that reuse and reform waste into value-added materials and products. Similarly, the School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials at the University of Adelaide has a strong research track record in energy storage that attracts global interest, with researchers delivering innovative, world-class solutions for the development of the circular economy of batteries. Finally, the Government must ensure its pursuit of a clean energy transition is coordinated through a whole of government approach or risk losing oversight and momentum. For example, the NRF includes renewables and low-emission technologies as one of the seven identified priority areas for investment; the Action Plan for Critical Technologies includes electric batteries as a priority in the national interest; and the Government has commissioned Jobs and Skills Australia to undertake a study on the clean energy workforce to understand where Australia should strengthen skills and training. There is considerable overlap in these initiatives and the Government’s efforts should align so that resources can be targeted where they are needed most.  


[1] https://minister.dcceew.gov.au/bowen/media-releases/45-million-power-next-generation-solar-research
[2] https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2021/09/10/university-spin-out-gelion-zinc-bromide-batteries-battery-energy-sydney-renewables.html
[3] https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2021/04/uq-technology-powers-greener-alternative-lithium-ion-brisbane-manufacturing-deal
[4] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-11-07/brisbane-battery-uq-graphene-battery-solar-energy-power-grid/101611614
[5] https://www.afr.com/world/north-america/aussies-among-winners-of-biden-s-4-5b-critical-minerals-grants-20221020-p5br91
[6] https://www.afr.com/world/north-america/ioneer-lands-first-1bn-us-government-loan-for-lithium-mine-20230114-p5cch6
[7] https://www.afr.com/world/north-america/aussies-among-winners-of-biden-s-4-5b-critical-minerals-grants-20221020-p5br91
[8] https://www.afr.com/world/north-america/aussies-among-winners-of-biden-s-4-5b-critical-minerals-grants-20221020-p5br91
[9] https://fbicrc.com.au/participants/
[10] https://go8.edu.au/go8-response-to-the-university-research-commercialisation-consultation-paper
[11] https://energy.unimelb.edu.au/news-and-events/events/net-zero-australia-interim-findings
[12] https://www.nationalskillscommission.gov.au/reports/2022-skills-priority-list-key-findings-report