Prominent economist Saul Eslake says the next boom in the mining sector is most likely to be driven by battery metals.

“If there’s likely to be any new boom in commodity prices it will probably come more from metals or commodities that are crucial to emerging technologies like electric vehicles,” Mr Eslake told 800 delegates today at the Resources Rising Stars conference on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Mr Eslake — a former chief economist at ANZ and Merill Lynch — said electric car demand had already driven a significant upturn in the price of lithium and cobalt, both of which go into electric vehicle batteries, as well as a turnaround in the nickel price.

“Aluminium could also potentially be a beneficiary of emerging technologies in transport and communications,” he said.

Pilbara Minerals (ASX:PLS) boss Ken Brinsden, meanwhile, did his best to allay concerns that lithium-ion batteries would be replaced by other emerging battery technologies.

“Battery technology is like a giant leap in terms of energy density and weight, and as a result the world has now placed its bets and started investing billions of dollars in expanding the lithium-ion battery supply chain,” he said.

“Again, there are those that worry about new battery technology that is just around the corner. Well I can assure you they are not just around the corner.”

Battery technology takes decades to develop and critical mass and scale must be established so they become the cost competitive solution, and that’s exactly what is happening with lithium-ion batteries, according to Mr Brinsden.

“So we easily now have a couple of decades worth of supporting growth in the lithium-ion battery,” he said.

While many might think the Americans, in particular Elon Musk’s Tesla, are the drivers of demand, in actual fact China and South Korea are at the “forefront”.

Pilbara Minerals is developing the Pilgangoora lithium and tantalum project – one of the biggest hard-rock lithium projects in the world.

The $1.5 billion company has already signed on China’s Ganfeng Lithium and General Lithium Corp and South Korea’s Posco as buyers of its lithium.

“China was the first to twig to the value in the hard rock lithium raw material supply base,” Mr Brinsden said.

“They had the leading technology and they’ve proven up a huge supply base now to continue to expand their lithium-ion supply chain. There is massive growth going on there. Everybody is underestimating how quickly they are moving.”

In 2016, China was already the world’s largest lithium raw materials demand base, and it grew a further 50 per cent.

“50 per cent growth, it’s absolutely extraordinary and it’s still happening because we still get people knocking on the door every other day saying can we secure more raw material supply,” Mr Brinsden said.

“The same is happening in South Korea and it’s being underestimated.”