Ken Brinsden talks sustainability and resources
The Green Files is a unique CEFC series where we talk to the people making a difference in the race to net zero emissions.
15 February 2022
Ken Brinsden has no illusions about how most Australians see mining. “Mining has a certain stain on its reputation – people think it’s dirty, that you’re an emitter, that you’re scarring the earth. It’s an industry people tolerate, but they generally don’t like it.”
However, as Managing Director and CEO of Australia’s leading pure-play lithium company, Pilbara Minerals, Ken is playing a critical role in changing this perception. Since 2015, he and his team have been pioneering the Pilgangoora Operation, the largest independent hard-rock lithium operation in the world. As a key component in technologies including batteries and electric vehicles, lithium is crucial in our transition to a greener economy – and the Pilbara story is only just beginning.
Before joining Pilbara Minerals, Ken’s achievements included leading the transformation of Atlas Minerals from junior explorer to ASX 100-listed iron ore operation with two mines in the mineral-rich Pilbara region. But he’s the first to admit that the Pilgangoora Operation presented an entirely unfamiliar challenge.
I’ve got to be honest, I knew virtually nothing about lithium at the start, but when I looked at the opportunity, I could see that, geologically speaking, what they were exploring was really good. I could see some scale, and I had the benefit of knowing that the Pilbara was a great place to build a mine. I knew the contractors and Indigenous leaders and community leaders. And I thought we probably should give it a go.Ken BrinsdenPilbara Minerals
What took Ken by surprise was the pace at which things began to change. “No sooner had I joined and Tesla became a poster child for electric vehicles, effectively lighting a fire under the potential of the EV story. In parallel, China’s demand for batteries was exploding, bringing in the first wave of lithium demand.”
For Pilbara Minerals, this was good news. But when it came to financing the Pilgangoora Operation, things weren’t quite as straightforward. “Everybody was excited about lithium, and for this reason I somewhat naïvely thought that financing a new lithium mine would be easy,” recalls Ken. “But the finance, it was probably the hardest part of the process. When it came to financing a new, greenfield project like this, very few people were up for the risk.”
Fortunately, the CEFC provided an initial $20 million investment that enabled the project to become a reality, since upping its investment to $50 million as the mine grows. “As well as getting the project off the ground, the cornerstone investment by the CEFC enabled us to attract further investment. It was probably the difference between the Pilgangoora Operation happening, or not,” says Ken.
As the lithium industry continues to grow at an incredible speed, Ken is excited about Australia’s potential to capitalise on the opportunities. “Electrification is happening much, much faster than anticipated, with the market growing in a way that outstrips global expectations,” says Ken. “What’s especially exciting to me is the fact that the industry is young and supply chains are still evolving. Given our size, we’re in a position to pick up more and more of that supply chain. That means we can benefit from more of the ‘value-adds’ and reduce our reliance on things being done offshore.
“In fact, I’d say that lithium mining is more about supply chains and technology than it is about mining. It’s completely different to the regular mining game. The scope of what you have to consider is much broader. There are many, many steps involved in turning lithium in the ground into a battery. It’s very delicate, interconnected supply chain, and since the industry is extremely fast moving, you need to keep up with industry developments all the time.”
In spite of the challenges, there’s no doubting Ken’s commitment to the future of lithium in Australia. “With lithium and raw battery materials, we’re part of the solution to decarbonising the economy. And not just Australia’s economy, but the global economy. Not only is Australia fortunate to have this incredible natural mineral here, we have the infrastructure and talent to value-add. It really is a game changer. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?”.