The Beauty of First-Mover Advantage

22 Jun 2016

If you haven’t seen the interview our chief financial officer Shane Volk did with investor communications business Canary Networks, here is the link: watch it now.

It’s only a short interview but in it Shane encapsulates why we’re so excited about our high purity alumina (HPA) project. As Shane says in the interview, it’s about value-adding to Australia’s mineral resources, which you don’t often see.

Our story is more a manufacturing story than a mining story.

And it’s a story in which we're a good five to six years out in front of potential competitors.

We’ve talked in previous newsroom articles about the burgeoning array of uses for HPA, and how the proposed 4,000 tonnes of 99.99% (4N) HPA produced per year will be entering an under-supplied market.

HPA is a genuinely high-tech raw material. At the moment, the largest use of HPA is in high-brightness LED lighting, a semiconductor device that converts electricity into light. Manufacturing LED lighting requires sapphire substrates and there are no substitutes for HPA in this.

The next largest use is semiconductors, in which HPA is used in the sapphire wafers that go into semiconductors. Then there are the ‘phosphor’ applications in plasma display panels in TVs and computer screens.

HPA is also used in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, which are seen as an integral part of the coming electric-car revolution, as well as in home batteries and power storage for the renewable energy sector. Large-form lithium-ion batteries have plastic battery separators and HPA is used to coat those separators. The lithium-ion battery market is estimated at more than US$30 billion a year.

HPA is used in automotive sensors, high-tech lasers, and video and computer equipment. HPA is also used an abrasive for the polishing of optic and electronic equipment. HPA ceramics are used in sodium lamps, which are higher in efficiency and luminance than incandescent and fluorescent lamps.

Then there are the medical uses; primarily in orthopaedic implants – in particular, artificial hip-joint balls – and tooth implants. HPA’s low-friction and high wear-resistance, thermal and electrical insulating ability and superior chemical compatibility also give it a place in military and space-based uses.

As Shane says, one of the markets that is opening up for HPA – and which particularly interests us – is synthetic sapphire glass, made from artificial sapphire. Sapphire glass is the toughest, hardest, densest transparent material that you can get: it has long been used as a cover for luxury watches but in October 2013, Apple started to use sapphire glass to cover the camera lens and fingerprint sensors for its iPhone. Apple is also using sapphire glass on Apple Watches.

Today’s smartphone makers are blown away by test results showing how tough sapphire glass is, both in resistance to scratches and fracture toughness.

The most important thing according to Shane is that the technology Altech proposes to use to produce HPA is different from current producers. They buy aluminium metal and re-refine it to produce HPA; but we will do it in a direct, single-step process.

We won’t be surprised if competitors try to adopt a similar process – but the beauty of our project is that we’re the first.