Africa is a key contributor to renewable energy ambitions worldwide, with its ample quantity of minerals vital to the production of lithium-ion batteries.
These batteries are used in mobile telecommunication devices as well as electric vehicles.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said more than 16 million total EVs had been sold worldwide by the end of 2021, with about 6.6 million EVs sold in 2021.
The latest edition of the agency’s annual Global Electric Vehicle Outlook show more than 10 million electric cars were sold in 2022. Sales for 2023 are expected to grow by another 35%.
Some of the key minerals necessary for they manufacturing of these batteries are lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and graphite.
Research by Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for African Studies show that key lithium-ion batteries’ minerals are available in “ample quantities” in South Africa (manganese, nickel and platinum), Democratic Republic of Congo (cobalt), Zimbabwe (lithium), Mozambique (graphite) and Zambia (copper).
A report by the university – Electric Vehicles: Africa’s battery minerals and global value chain opportunities – said: “While these minerals are mined in Africa the actual value-addition work such as smelting, refining, cell assembly and ultimately the EV production take place outside the continent.”
“Africa thus loses out on higher returns on job-creation that occurs from participating in value creation.”
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Where are these minerals found and what are they generally used for?
(As per Brandon S. Tracy, Analyst in Energy Policy and author of Critical Minerals in Electric Vehicle Batteries):
Li (chemical symbol for lithium) is the lightest of all metallic elements, highly reactive and is not found in nature in elemental form. It has been used in metallurgy, medications, and glass glazing for about 100 years, with more recent uses for military applications, grease, and cosmetics. Lithium has been used in batteries since at least 1935.
The leading producer of lithium from brine is Chile, and the leading producer of lithium from pegmatites is Australia. The recent discovery in Ghana of “commercial quantities” of lithium – used in cellphones and electric vehicles (EV) – should be used to improve its economy, says the country’s Institute for Energy Security (IES).
The Minerals Income Investment Fund (MIIF) of Ghana recently announced that it has started negotiations on plans to invest up to $30 million in Atlantic Lithium Ltd, an Australian exploration and mining firm listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX).
Today, the production and processing operations for lithium are concentrated mainly in Australia, Chile and Brazil.
But there is a new focus on Zimbabwe, which has the largest lithium reserve in Africa and the sixth-largest lithium reserve in the world. Zimbabwe is also estimated to have the highest number of lithium mining projects under exploration on the African continent.
Co (chemical symbol for cobalt) is used in many applications, including batteries, superalloys, cutting tools, magnetic alloys, animal feed additives, bonding agents, industrial catalysts, drying agents for paint, and glass decolorisers, among others.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is estimated to have the highest worldwide mineral production of cobalt (120,000 metric tons); total global production is estimated to be 170,000 metric tons.
Mn (chemical symbol for manganese) has an average concentration in the Earth’s crust of around 1,000 parts per million, with concentrations varying greatly among different types of rocks. For 2021, South Africa is estimated to have the highest worldwide mineral production of manganese (7.4 million metric tons); total global production is estimated to be 20 million metric tons.
A recent report focusing on manganese mining in South Africa said demand for manganese products used in batteries could increase ninefold by 2030 due to rising electric vehicle production and to higher amounts of manganese used per battery. “South Africa’s manganese ore production grow to account for about 50% of the world’s additional manganese ore output over the next decade.”
Ni (chemical symbol for nickel) is found in the Earth’s upper continental crust at an approximate average concentration of 44 parts per million. Nickel is primarily used in stainless steel; in alloys (for its resistance to corrosion), coinage, plating, chemicals, and batteries.
Indonesia is estimated to have the highest worldwide mineral production of nickel (1 million metric tons); total global production is estimated to be 2.7 million metric tons.
Carbon can occur naturally as – or be transformed into – a crystalline structure called graphite. Natural graphite and synthetic graphite are forms of pure carbon.
Graphite is used in many applications, including electronics, lubricants, metallurgy, steelmaking, fuel cells, batteries and lightweight high-strength composite applications.
Natural graphite is typically used in most applications, including EV batteries, due to its cost advantage.
China is estimated to have the highest worldwide production of natural graphite (820,000 metric tons); total global production is estimated to be 1,000,000 metric tons.
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In his report, Tracy said lithium-ion batteries are the dominant type of rechargeable batteries used in EVs.
“The most commonly used varieties are lithium cobalt oxide (LCO), lithium manganese oxide (LMO), lithium iron phosphate (LFP), lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide (NCA) and lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC).
“EV batteries play important roles in EVs, and the complexity and mineral content of EV batteries is reflected in the battery cost. Some estimates place the cost of an EV battery between 30% and 33% of the total cost of a vehicle, costing on average $6,300.”
Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for African Studies report said that much of the global reserves of critical minerals required for manufacturing EV batteries are in the DRC, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa.
“With ample graphite reserves in Mozambique and Tanzania, there is no reason why refined graphite should not be similarly produced in those African countries.
“In the case of manganese, South Africa, which accounts for a significant share of global reserves, already has demonstrable refining capacity. But it still exports more than 80% of its manganese ore for beneficiation abroad.”
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Overall, the continent contributes substantially to the world’s annual production of six key minerals: 80% of platinum, 77% of cobalt, 51% of manganese, 46% of diamonds, 39% of chromium and 22% of gold.
The African Development Bank Group (AfDB) said the continent “must use all its comparative advantages.”
“Too often governments fail to harness this natural potential to mobilise resources.”
Recently, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo announced it was setting up Special Economic Zones (SEZ) for the production of electric vehicles (EVs). The two countries collectively contribute 11% of all copper supply globally.
The DRC accounts for approximately 70% of global cobalt supply and 88% of cobalt exports.
Cobalt accounts for 26% of the DRC’s exports.
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