Silicon maker may be forced to import coal as jarrah stock, a key input, dwindles

Australia’s sole silicon manufacturer may be forced to import coal as it struggles to secure a steady supply of local wood to make its product.

Based in southwestern Western Australia, Simcoa would normally rely on charcoal sourced from local jarrah to produce its high-quality silicon.

But because of the flow-through effects of a WA government decision to end harvesting native forests by 2024, the company said it had access to only half the amount it normally would.

David Miles, Simcoa’s director of operations, said that without a suitable alternative, the company may need to triple the amount of coal it imports to continue operating at full capacity.

David Miles is the director of the Simcoa factory in Kemerton, WA.ABC Southwest: Georgia Hargreaves

“Normally we need about 140,000 tons of hardwood for the production process. This year we received about half,” he said.

Miles said the company was very concerned that it would have to consider alternatives to jarrah that weren’t as beneficial.

How is wood related to solar panels?

It takes a carbon source to produce high-quality silicon, an important input used in solar panels.

This carbon source can be obtained either directly from coal or by turning wood into charcoal through a heating process.

Piles of tree trunks.
The company is testing bluegum as an alternative to jarrah charcoal. ABC Southwest: Georgia Hargreaves

However, not all woods are created equal, as some woods are believed to absorb additional minerals from the soil, which can affect the purity of the final product.

Mr Miles said jarrah was the best wood for the job and created a very high quality silicon.

This high-quality silicon is used to make solar panels and other battery technologies.

A hand holding a silvery rock.
High-quality silica rock that is exported to Japan and used to make solar panels.ABC Southwest: Georgia Hargreaves

Recently, the federal government listed high-quality silica as a crucial mineral, with data suggesting the global silica sand market could grow from about $10 billion in 2018 to nearly $29 billion by 2024.

Importing Colombian coal as a last resort

Mr Miles said that if they couldn’t ensure a steady supply of wood, the company would have to import large quantities of coal from Colombia – the only country with a high-quality product suitable for silicon production.

Black coal in a big heap
Piles of coal shipped from Colombia.ABC Southwest: Georgia Hargreaves

“Coal is a very bad thing globally because it increases your carbon footprint,” Miles said.

Profile of a man in a suit.
Western Australia’s Minister of Forestry, Dave Kelly. ABC News: Jon Sambell

Forestry Commissioner Dave Kelly said he was not aware of any timber supply issues and would have no part in deciding whether or not Simcoa decided to import more coal.

“They’re going to have to make commercial decisions about where to get their material from,” he said.

The minister would not acknowledge the implication that using coal as an input for silicon production was “bad for climate change”.

Curtin University sustainability professor Peter Newman said wood is the preferred source of carbon in silicon production.

Aerial view of a forest.
A safe supply of jarrah would solve the company’s problem, according to director David Miles.ABC National

“We can grow trees especially for that process,” he said.

“We can’t imagine a future with coal anymore, that’s over.

“Through the processes, we will have to grow more trees and dig up more silicon and more lithium.” [because] these are the raw materials of the next economy.”

Aerial view of sheep wandering among the solar panels at Numurkah . solar farm
The coalition says keeping Australia at the forefront of low-emission innovation is their number one action on climate change. ABC 7:30

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