Metal guru! Soluna batteries hit the Australian market with a twist

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With its first shipment of residential solar batteries arriving in the country in June, Soluna Australia today announced the signing of a letter of intent to install a solar system at Northern Minerals’ remote Browns Range mining camp, which will showcase its storage capabilities in the heavyweight category.

The heavy rare earth (HRE) mine, producing dysprosium destined for manufacturing the long-lasting magnets used in electric vehicle motors, is situated 1,900 km northeast of Perth in Western Australia, and some processing of the rare earth is done on site. 

Around 84 miners and plant workers live in the adjacent mine camp and the first phase of the solar system will power the camp itself with approximately 100 kW of solar installed, most likely as a ground-mounted array, in tandem with a modular battery energy storage system of eight 12.5 kWh Soluna batteries.

Soluna General Manager, Kieron D’Arcy estimates the size of the final Browns Range system will be around 1 MW, with matching battery capacity.

Take-off of energy may be structured as a power purchase agreement, but the solar set up may also be funded and owned by Northern Minerals, depending on the expected life of the mine, which could be extended from its current eight-year term therefore making it economical for the miner to take ownership of the system.

Browns Range mine camp, with accommodation for 84 workers, will transition from diesel generation to a Soluna-designed solar-plus-battery system later this year.

Image: Northern Minerals

Slashing diesel use for a much smaller carbon footprint

“Northern Minerals are pretty keen to reduce their carbon footprint and also to save money by reducing their diesel use, and they see renewables being a good option for both of those aims,” D’Arcy told pv magazine.

He adds that Soluna’s lithium ferro phosphate technology performs well in the kind of high ambient temperatures experienced in northern WA, which is one reason that fledgling Soluna is confident in creating innovative energy solutions for Australia’s mining and other remote applications.

D’Arcy says, “What also attracted Northern Minerals to Soluna was the fact that we have an end of life already assigned for the battery.”

A battery of recycling opportunities

Soluna Australia is a joint venture of Lithium Australia, an ASX-listed company which aims to close the loop on the energy-metal cycle, and Chinese battery manufacturer DLG Energy.

If the mine life is extended and Northern Minerals has the opportunity to exhaust the resilient battery, it will be recycled by Envirostream, which is 95% owned by Lithium Australia. 

Envirostream shreds li-ion batteries to generate a powder containing critical battery minerals ready to be refined into nickel, cobalt, manganese and lithium, which can be used again in the manufacture of battery cathodes.

Lithium Australia itself has developed two patented processes to extract lithium from mine waste, or tailings, to enhance the sustainability of lithium production in Australia.

Another venture of Lithium Australia, its wholly owned subsidiary VSPC in Brisbane, produces high-grade cathode powders, which it supplies to DLG.

And a cable-free tram on the side

In February, VSPC also secured a $1.6 million Federal Government grant to work with CSIRO, University of Queensland and Soluna Australia on a program aimed at developing fast-charging lithium-ion batteries for new-generation trams. The project is expected to eliminate the need for expensive and unsightly overhead-power-line infrastructure.

In the home, commercial and grid-scale solar system environment, Envirostream, VSPC and DLG will ultimately work in tandem to constantly recycle and reuse battery materials; 

Envirostream’s processes result in a mere 5% of unrecoverable material from end-of-life batteries.

D’Arcy credits Adrian Griffin, CEO of Lithium Australia and a director of Soluna Australia as “the one with the foresight to see that all of this should be happening now; from an environmental view it really does tick all the boxes.”

Soluna’s modular storage solutions start arriving in Australia in September, and Browns Range will receive its package shortly thereafter.

Lithium Australia is aware of the growing demand for off-grid and fringe-of-grid hybrid energy systems, Griffin said in a statement. He added that renewable energy couldn’t work in such applications without the integration of reliable storage, and Soluna offers economical and sustainable solutions.