There is a boom in the battery metals mining space, owing to a global focus on environment-friendly power initiatives, or ‘green’ energy, says mining industry specialist consultants The MSA Group.
MSA Group critical metals principal consultant Michael Cronwright says the company has noted a global push towards green energy and the development of environment-friendly technical innovations, such as the production of electric vehicles and off-grid storage initiatives.
He enthuses that this global refocus has resulted in neglected minerals – previously considered by-products of more lucrative mining endeavours – becoming global commodities in their own right. Moreover, there has been a significant surge in international demand for minerals used in green energy production, which include battery metals, such as graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper, zinc and, in the last two years in particular, lithium.
“Consequently, people are prepared to invest money into these projects now and the industry is experiencing growth in these once-ignored markets.”
Cronwright explains that current exploration and investment in the battery metals market is not limited to greenfield projects, and that the market has proven to be a boon to mines across all stages of their life cycle. Many battery metals were previously dispensable by-products, but they can now be recovered either from waste and tailings dumps at existing operational mine sites, or from previously operational mine sites, for a fraction of the cost, compared with the cost of developing a greenfield project.
Cronwright cites the Kamativi lithium tailings project, in Zimbabwe, for Canada-based mineral exploration company Chimata Gold as an example. The project is under way at the old Kamativi mine that had previously been mined for tin; none of the lithium was ever recovered and now sits in the tailings dumps as spodumene. MSA will complete a mineral resource estimate based on the results of the assays from the recently completed drilling programme, which will be compiled into a technical report and mineral resource statement for the project.
MSA states that its own workflow related to the battery metals industry has grown substantially within the past two years, with MSA involved in several projects across the African continent.
South Africa Missing Out?
While the boom in battery metals has presented the global mining industry with an exciting opportunity, Cronwright says South Africa is not benefiting from the growing new market, adding that, in the global market, the country is comparatively not an attractive or viable investment destination for these exploration projects. South Africa’s traditionally strong gold, platinum-group elements (PGE), coal, diamond and iron-ore industries are unlikely to see growth associated with increased battery metals demand.
“South Africa is not well endowed with battery metals but there are some deposits in the Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng that may have some potential; however, even when orebodies are present, they must compete with other deposits within Africa and globally which may be more attractive investment opportunities for various reasons, including grade and size, legislative environment, access to technical skills, permitting and tenure information, among others. To benefit, South Africa needs to change these perceptions.”
South Africa will see some benefit from the battery metals boom. The PGE mines on the Bushveld Complex produce significant quantities of copper, nickel and cobalt as by-products which may provide a small measure of relief to the depressed platinum prices of the past three years.
Copper and zinc mining in the Northern Cape is set to benefit from increased metals prices which are partly driven by the battery metals boom. MSA Group geology operations manager Craig Blane believes that this district is not fully explored and has potential to deliver new discoveries driven by the demand for battery metals.
Blane states that it should also be noted that South Africa has potential for pegmatite hosted lithium deposits in the Northern Cape and a number of small deposits in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, such as the Highbury pegmatite deposit.
Investment a Mounting Concern
Blane is concerned about the lack of investment in the South African mining industry, particularly in early stage exploration projects.
“The problem is that the pipeline of projects has been empty for some ten years. While we have several large brownfield operations running in the country, we have very few new or developing operations to replace our ageing mines.”
Besides the risk of a diminishing mining economy, the implication is that end-of-life brownfield operations will have no new operations to replace them. This will affect the communities that depend on mining – where communities will be left with little to fall back on to sustain the local economies.
Mines, as part of their closure planning will need to address this as part of their sustainability legacy, social risk and mine closure compliance. The MSA Group through their engagement with the industry is finding an increasing emphasis on correct mine closure planning and provisioning, with many local mines starting to realise this. The most important element, however, is the significantly costly missing link between biophysical rehabilitation of mines and socioeconomic sustainability, which is often missed and could leave communities stranded. The MSA Group is working with their clients to innovatively address these issues in the mine closure arena through early planning, integration and implementation.
Ultimately, for the mining industry, investment in new exploration and mine site development needs to be a continuous process with engagement with all stakeholders, says MSA Group principal consultant Mike Robertson. He states that stimulating exploration – particularly in South Africa’s near nonexistent junior mining space – will be key in promoting the longevity of the local mining industry.
Robertson concludes that stabilising legislative frameworks, promoting better access to critical information, encouraging sound planning and creating and enabling an investment environment for new exploration must be prioritised by the South African government.