Sunday, May 20, 2018

Giant strides towards lithium production

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Golden Sibanda in Victoria Falls
ZIMBABWE has taken giant steps towards entering the big league of major battery grade lithium producers in the world after one of the major projects that is set to commence production went a step further and successfully set up a lithium carbonate plant in Kwekwe.
This comes as several mining and beneficiation projects have been lined up and exploration is ongoing.
Players in the industry say Government must act with speed and create an environment that enables the miners to capitalise on current frenzied interest in the mineral and raise capital on global markets to develop their projects.
Mines and Mining Development Minister Winston Chitando told a lithium session at the Chamber of Mines Annual General Meeting in Victoria Falls on Thursday that one of the projects, Prospect Resources, had successfully established a battery grade lithium carbonate plant.
The Chamber of Mines AGM, which ended yesterday, is running under the theme “Unlock Value, Maximise Benefits” (Growth Perspectives for the Zimbabwe Mining Industry). While lithium has found new fame from the astronomical growth of its demand in the electrical vehicle manufacturing industry, the mineral is also used extensively in production of greases, foundries, ceramics and the medical field.
Speaking during an oversubscribed lithium session, the minister said the company’s Kwekwe based plant had produced lithium carbonate ready to go straight in electric vehicle battery manufacturing and a sample had already been delivered to his offices in Harare.
“Most pleasing are the efforts which have been made by the producers in terms of value addition, yes sales will initially be lithium concentrate, but there is a pilot plant that has been set up in Kwekwe for the production of lithium carbonate.
“I actually got a sample to my office of this lithium carbonate that has been produced at 99,5 percent purity, which is ready to go straight into battery manufacturing and His Excellency the President will be in Kwekwe soon to look at that pilot plant,” he said.
Minister Chitando said the development marks a significant step towards lithium value addition, a thrust Government is pursuing vigorously to optimise earnings from the country’s abundant but finite resources.
The company behind the project, Prospect Resources, is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and has vast lithium resources located just 38 kilometres east of Harare. The company says its assets represent the sixth largest Joint ore resources committee (JORC) compliant resource in the world.
Last week, the company said it had engaged global engineering firm, DRA, to provide engineering services and the designs for its Arcadia lithium project near Harare. The company expects to complete plant construction and commence production by June next year. This development comes at a time lithium has gained global acclaim given growing demand over its use in electric vehicles across the globe.
The first largest lithium producer in Zimbabwe is set to join the fray of major producers, led by Australia, Argentina, Chile and Brasil.
Operators who are at various stages of developing their Zimbabwean assets have implored Government to expedite the process of resolving sticking issues constraining their projects to allow them to capitalise on current frenzied interest in lithium to raise capital on global markets.
Grunt Hudson, the chief of executive of the country’s only producing lithium mine, Bikita Minerals, said the producers require at least $75 million to develop the assets from resource technical compliance to plant construction.
“It was heartening to hear investors saying that these are the things that we wish you could get right and we will come (to Zimbabwe). Unfortunately, a few of them cannot be done at the stroke of a pen. It is going to take time, but it is a path we have started on, so let us keep going.”
Specifically, lithium miners have also identified the beneficiation tax of 5 percent among major factors they contend cause serious viability challenges and weigh down their efforts to develop their assets.
The miners also want the Government to give them full access to earned foreign currency reserves as well as create conditions that will give investors the confidence to come to Zimbabwe, including removing bureaucratic bottlenecks.
He said the country should move with speed to ensure that current projects, four of them at the moment, are able to raise the requisite funding on global markets to exploit the highly sought after mineral.
Current projects include Prospect’s Arcadia project, Bikita Minerals, Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation’s joint venture (Zimbabwe Lithium) with Canadian firm, Jimbata, at Kamativi Mine in Matabeleland North and AIM listed African Premier Minerals’ Zulu project.
Three lithium projects, except Bikita Minerals, which started production around 1963, have not yet started production and are at various stages of development.  Zimbabwe boasts vast deposits of lithium but production still lags behind leading global producers, with only one company, Bikita Minerals, currently producing.
Bikita Minerals allegedly holds the world’s largest-known deposit of lithium, at over 11 million tonnes.
Zimbabwe’s lithium production has averaged 1 000 tonnes a year since 2012, according to Statista, a reputable online statistics, market research and business intelligence portal. Australia, the world’s largest producer extracted 18 700 tonnes of the commodity last year, followed by Chile at 14 100 tonnes, Argentina at 5 500 tonnes and China at 3 000 tonnes.
The mineral also occurs widely in South America, but deposits are contaminated with magnesium.