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‘South African industrial jewel’ repositions as manganese becomes key battery material

Packaged manganese destined for export

Photo by Creamer Media's Donna Slater

The electrowinning plant at MMC's Mbombela refinery

Photo by Creamer Media's Donna Slater

Beneficiated manganese being loaded into a shipping container destined for the export market

Photo by Creamer Media's Donna Slater

8th September 2023

By: Martin Creamer

Creamer Media Editor

     

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JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – For nearly 50 years Manganese Metal Company (MMC) has been buying high-grade manganese fines material from Hotazel in South Africa’s Northern Cape and turning it into a beneficiated manganese product.

Chaired by mining luminary Bernard Swanepoel, MMC has over the years become the world’s largest producer of selenium-free electrolytic manganese metal (EMM), a great feat.

Now, in addition to that, the 100% privately owned company in Nelspruit is vigorously researching and developing high purity battery grade manganese sulphate to help satisfy phenomenal upcoming demand from the burgeoning global battery electric vehicle (BEV) market.

On the cards is the construction of a 5 000 t/y brownfield plant at the site of the existing 28 000 t/y EMM with commercial sales targeted to feed into elevated BEV demand from 2026/27, when the feasibility of a much larger 30 000 t/y greenfield manganese sulphate plant is envisaged.

Speaking to Mining Weekly on the sidelines of MMC’s Open Day on Friday, Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) senior economist Gaylor Montmasson-Clair described MMC as a “South African industrial jewel” that could be much bigger than what it is today.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind company that we should support on its growth trajectory. The company’s vision is fully aligned with the objectives of the South African Renewable Energy Masterplan and the industrialisation of renewable energy and battery storage value chains in South Africa,” Montmasson-Clair added.

TIPS is an independent, non-profit, economic research institution based in Pretoria that was established in 1996 to support economic policy development, with an emphasis on industrial policy in South Africa and the region.

Amid a flurry of new high-purity manganese sulphate projects being announced globally, MMC wants to offer both metal and high-purity sulphate to the market for batteries. Price risk is an uncertainty for new non-China supply of manganese sulphate, as currently the only available reference price is for China-produced and China-consumed material.

There is no London Metal Exchange price for refined manganese and refined manganese prices have only been tracked for the last two to three years. Current long-term pricing for refined manganese sulphate out of China is reportedly below $1 000/t.

An incentive price is necessary to sustain non-China supply, to cover cost of capital, cost of low carbon emissions, and cost of meeting European Union and North American environmental standards.

The challenge for MMC is to reach a stage at which it attracts capital at a time when exponential growth under way is driving the need to secure critical minerals and metals.

The issue is not the outlook for the supply of raw manganese ore – of which there is a good supply – but rather the huge projected demand for high-purity manganese with a processing threshold that the highly experienced 600-employee MMC is within a hair’s breadth of matching.

The processing credibility of MMC, as a major global EMM exporter to countries such as Japan and the US, is ultra-rare outside of China, the dominant supplier. It is tried-and-trusted tech-savvy that is placing this highly impressive company – set in the magnificent Lowveld – on the way to becoming a BEV-era manganese masterpiece for another half century.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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