Battery tech in electric cars presents a huge opportunity to SA mining
SA is by far the world’s largest manganese producer and is estimated to have 70% of the world’s manganese reserves
The global motor industry is moving increasingly towards electric vehicles (EVs) from the carbon-emitting internal combustion engine. This requires extensive investment in battery technology, which presents huge opportunities for SA mining.
Various rare-earth minerals are used to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles, but the bulk commodity manganese is a major component of the NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt) lithium-ion batteries likely to power much of the next generation of EVs.
SA is by far the world’s largest manganese producer and is estimated to have 70% of the world’s manganese reserves.
Speaking at the 2019 Batteries and Electric Vehicles Conference, Sam Jaffe, MD of Cairn Energy Research Advisors, predicted that EV market penetration would be far faster in the Asia Pacific region compared to Europe, but was growing rapidly.
China’s EV30@30 Scenario anticipates EVs accounting for 70% of all vehicle sales in 2030.
Given the opportunity, it is imperative that more SA companies expand into fully functional EV battery offerings, as opposed to simply riding the manganese commodity wave.
In this context, special economic zones (SEZs), with their preferential corporate tax rates, employment incentives and customs benefits, are an attractive option for manufacturers.
SA has 10 SEZs, with several more in the planning stages. Among these, the Coega SEZ is the largest, with a reported 45 operational investors worth a combined R11.6bn.
Coega Development Corporation
Coega offers a business location purpose-built for manufacturing including beneficiation of export goods, investment and local socio-economic growth, adjacent to a modern, deep-water port with a container, bulk and break-bulk terminals, integrated with rail networks for efficient commodity logistics.
Coega Development Corporation (CDC) business development metallurgic sector manager Sadick Davids has pointed out that the SEZ is the “ideal location in terms of readiness for the beneficiation of manganese”.
Besides the infrastructure, the Coega SEZ also has the skills capacity for battery manufacture thanks to Eveready Batteries, long-established in Coega’s host city of Port Elizabeth.
Already, there are moves afoot to leverage these advantages and to establish battery-manufacturing facilities around Coega.
Megamillion Investment company announced at the recent Batteries and Electric Vehicles conference at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth that the Coega SEZ would be the site of Africa’s first lithium-ion battery mega-factory.
Nechan Naicker, founder and CEO of Megamillion Energy Company, said work would start in 2020 on a 20,000m2 pilot plant at Coega. He said it would be “a scalable world-class 0.2GWh manufacturing facility” capable of producing about 10-million lithium-ion cells per year.
He said the initial focus would be to produce affordable cells for Africa. The master plan is to work with technology partners from Asia to scale up to an output of 32GWh of cells per year by 2028, producing for both the energy storage and electric vehicle markets.
SA’s largest conventional battery manufacturer, Metair Investments, has also entered the field, via a 35% shareholding in Prime Motors, but they have located their pilot plant in Romania, assisted by a government grant.
In Mintek and the CSIR, SA has two partially state-funded institutions that undertake research and development projects to aid the economy. Mintek specifically targets beneficiation and minerals processing, while the CSIR has a much wider ambit.
The emergence of this specific application of battery technology using local materials would justify further research in this area by one of these bodies, perhaps in collaboration with a local university.
Metair already has such a partnership with the University of the Western Cape (UWC), whereby they will partner with the SA Institute for Advanced Materials Chemistry (SAIAMC) — also located at UWC, which houses the only pilot-scale lithium-ion battery cell assembly facility in Africa.
Metair’s agreement with UWC will see the company invest R3-million over three years to pilot a prototype lithium production project, to improve equipment and to sponsor one local postdoctoral fellow to be trained at Argonne National Laboratory in the US.
The 2018 department of trade and industry industrial policy action plan referred to programmes being launched for the beneficiation of minerals, but these were restricted to two very focused projects — fuel cell research for platinum group metals, and vanadium battery storage technology. It seems there is a good case for the department extending these to lithium-ion battery applications.
If such plants are built on a sufficiently large scale, SA will benefit from the local component of the value chain. Minerals-beneficiation projects with a reliable local customer manufacturing an export product can link manganese prices to export market prices. This can avoid the prospect of a dual local/export pricing model as exists in the coal mining sector.
Given SA’s natural suitability for lithium-ion battery manufacturing, more could be done by manufacturers and the government to fund research and incentivise the development of these manufacturing opportunities.
SA has a unique opportunity to capitalise on the trend towards electric vehicles and manganese-powered battery technology. There is potential for significant minerals-beneficiation projects, and an opportunity to change our status as simply an exporter of raw materials.
High-technology manufacturing can dovetail effectively with the relatively lower-technology mining industry to transform the commodities sector, with vast benefits for employment, the local economy and SA society at large.
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