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Electric vehicles: Africa’s battery minerals and GVC opportunities (2)

Apart from lithium, African countries account for significant shares of global reserves of these key battery minerals. Cobalt is largely a by-product of copper and nickel mining, with more than half of global reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour is rife and violent political conflicts are frequent. According to UNCTAD data, Chile accounts for more than half of global lithium reserves, with Turkey and China similarly so for graphite. For manganese global reserves, South Africa and Gabon account for 39 percent, while Australia, Brazil and Ukraine account for 46 percent (UNCTAD, 2020).

Refined cobalt is produced in three forms: chemicals, powder and metals. For LIBs, refined cobalt chemicals are the ones sought to combine with other refined mineral components like manganese or aluminium to make the cathode element (Farchy & Warren, 2018). And while Impala Platinum of South Africa and Gecamines of the DRC produce some refined cobalt chemicals, 350 metric tonnes and 200 metric tonnes respectively, they are relatively minuscule compared to the global total of more than 64 thousand metric tonnes. In fact, according to 2017 data sourced from Darton Commodities Ltd, more than 80 percent of global cobalt chemical refining capacity is in China (Farchy & Warren, 2018).

Fundamentally, there is demonstrable expertise of cobalt chemical refining on the continent. Thus, the issue is scale and whether there are sufficient economies for doing so. There is currently significant research effort being put towards finding alternatives to pricey cobalt, or at least reduce the proportion needed in LIBs. In fact, global automaker VW, EV manufacturers Tesla and BYD are reportedly at advanced stages of developing cobalt-free batteries.

Read Also: Electric vehicles: Africa’s battery minerals and GVC opportunities (1)

But even as getting as much performance with less cobalt continues to be the focus of determined research efforts, cobalt is likely to remain a key component of LIBs for a little long while. Owing to cost savings, some EV OEMs like Tesla do not mind using lower cobalt chemistries, however. It certainly highlights the imperative for the DRC, which accounts for more than half of global cobalt reserves, to ensure cobalt remains an attractive proposition.

Ordinarily, it should be a natural extension for the African countries with mining capacity and demonstrable refining expertise of a key LIB mineral like cobalt, especially the DRC, to seek greater beneficiation in situ.

Ordinarily, it should be a natural extension for the African countries with mining capacity and demonstrable refining expertise of a key LIB mineral like cobalt, especially the DRC, to seek greater beneficiation in situ. Incidentally, this is the case with the other key battery minerals mined in significant quantity elsewhere. In Chile, where most of the global lithium reserves are mined, for instance, that is also where most of the refining takes place (UNCTAD, 2020).

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 still exports more than 80 percent of its manganese ore for beneficiation abroad (TIPS, 2021).

The LIB manufacturing process involves three main stages: (1) electrode preparation (2) cell assembly and (3) battery electrochemistry activation. There is currently no African country where any of these LIB manufacturing stages takes place on a commercial scale.Japan’s Panasonic, China’s CATL and South Korea’s LG Chem are the current leading global EV LIB manufacturers. The top global LIB cathode manufacturers are Umicore, BASF, and Johnson Matthey. For LIB anodes, Asian manufacturers are dominant, namely; Hitachi Chemical, BTR, Shanshan Technology, JFE, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, and Nippon Carbon (UNCTAD, 2020).

According to data by BloombergNEF, China controlled about 80 percent of global LIB minerals refining, 77 percent of cell production and 60 percent of components manufacturing in 2020, and is expected to remain dominant through 2025. South Africa and the DRC rank high for LIB raw materials but falter for cell & component manufacturing and regulations, infrastructure & innovation.

An edited version of this article was first published by Nanyang Business School’s NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, Singapore. References, figures and tables are in the original article. See link viz.https://www.ntu.edu.sg/cas/news-events/news/details/electric-vehicles-africa-s-battery-minerals-and-gvc-opportunities

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