JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Sedibelo Platinum Mines, in South Africa’s North West province, will be playing a very important part in South Africa's green hydrogen effort to ensure that it contributes to a greener South Africa, chairperson Arne Frandsen assured Mining Weekly on Tuesday.
Frandsen is the managing partner and co-founder of the Pallinghurst Group and the leading light of the New York- and Toronto-listed Nouveau Monde Graphite, of Canada, businesses that work in close collaboration with the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) of South Africa in the case of Sedibelo and the IDC equivalent in Québec, Investissement Québec (IQ) in the case of Nouveau Monde.
Together, they are bringing no-compromise green mining to South Africa through sun and wind energy that will energise the smelterless Kell process at Sedibelo’s Pilanesberg Platinum Mines, and a North American battery materials platform to Québec. (Also watch Creamer Media video.)
In Canada, Frandsen has spent years co-developing a strategy to deliver a zero-carbon battery grade graphite, and in South Africa he is overseeing the process building at Sedibelo’s platinum group metals (PGM) operation that is poised to be South Africa’s greenest yet.
This month, yet another boost for Québec graphite was brought about by Nouveau Monde Graphite and Mason Graphite concluding an investment agreement, which brings together two North American deposits of world-class size.
“What it will allow us to do in North America is to provide the battery platform with green graphite for use in batteries,” Frandsen told Mining Weekly in a Zoom interview.
The Pallinghurst Group now has within its fold all the key elements needed for lithium-ion batteries, fuel cells and the green hydrogen economy.
“We’ve been very active in Québec. We formed a very good relationship with IQ, the government equivalent of South Africa’s IDC.
“It’s been a lot of hard work involving a lot of great cooperation,” he said.
Already built is the first part of Nouveau Monde’s graphite anode material plant and the starting ribbon has been cut for Nemaska Lithium.
Both materials are critical for battery making, and both activities will ensure that the battery materials platform in North America for electric vehicles will be based out of Québec.
Late last year, nickel, copper and cobalt were also brought into the group.
Mining Weekly: To what extent do nickel, copper and cobalt round off Pallinghurst’s overall offering to the unfolding global green economy?
Frandsen: Nickel, copper and cobalt were the missing parts. You can't have a battery without an anode, and an anode can’t be made without graphite, and we ticked that, and in virtually whatever form of chemicals you want to have in the battery, lithium is going to play a very critical role. You could just look at the periodic table, you see where lithium sits (lithium is the third-lightest element of the periodic table after hydrogen and helium), and unless you start finding new elements in the world, then it will always be a very critical part of any battery. We secured the cathode part of the battery, one of the critical building blocks, and, as you have seen how lithium has performed, it has been the sterling outperformer of all commodities, so I think we got that one right. What we missed were really the other elements of the cathode, which are the nickel, copper and cobalt. We spent a lot of time on this. The Pallinghurst team has been ploughing around in Canada and in the US to find the right deposit and in Talon Metals and the underlying Tamarack nickel/copper/cobalt project that we are part of with Rio Tinto, we have found what is for sure the best US deposit of those polymetallics. As you saw earlier in the year, we made the first-of-its-kind offtake agreement with Tesla, which means that Tesla’s Austin electric vehicle plant will benefit from the material that we're going to mine in Minnesota.
Turning to South Africa, how much of the revolutionary Kell plant has been built at Pilanesberg and what are your expectations from Kell?
My expectations are great and I think justifiably so. We’ve started building the Kell plant. It really is an important move. It will set us apart from our, call it peers or competitors, depending on how you look at it, in that we won't have smelters, but we will have the Kell process, which uses 80% less electricity, so why should Eskom build another coal-fired power station to fuel smelters if you can go and buy a Kell process? I'm sure introducing Kell is the right decision for South African society, the right decision for Eskom and the right decision for anyone who wants to green platinum.
In March, you appointed the juwi/Sturdee Energy consortium to supply 75 MW of solar and wind energy to Pilanesberg mines. What benefits will that renewable energy bring?
Well, it will bring two benefits. The Kell process lowers the overall need for electricity by 80%, so now we only have 20% left, and what we have entered into now as a first step is buying into existing solar and wind renewable energy. Whilst we are not directly using the electricity, we are supplying it into the grid and taking it off the grid. From a balancing point of view, we're starting off from the notion that we will not be reliant on coal-fired power plants, and the next step, which is really important, is that on our land around the mine, we will build a solar facility that will be able to provide us directly with the electricity that we need. My objective is very clear: I want to be off the grid. I want to be able to produce platinum in a sustainable fashion with no tapping into the grid and hence being able to deliver to you an ounce of green platinum with no carbon footprint.
Is green hydrogen also on the cards at Pilanesberg?
Absolutely. I mean it's in for a penny, in for a pound. We will be building power capacity beyond what we need directly in our mine and our processing plants and Kell, so green hydrogen is obviously a logical next step, and as you know, we hired our chief ESG officer Lael Bethlehem, and she's got great experience in renewable energy, and she's very keen on and focused on the green hydrogen path, so we definitely see Sedibelo playing a very important part in South Africa's effort for green hydrogen, and we for sure will be pulling our weight and making sure that we contribute to a greener South Africa.
Would your haul trucks then be powered by green hydrogen?
That would be the ultimate solution. It obviously is not a one-year project. You know the story about how you eat an elephant, and that's the way we have to do it. We’re going down a process that will allow us to produce green hydrogen. We’re going down a path that will allow us to produce a carbon neutral ounce of platinum. These things are the right things to do, and we have no vested interests. Many of our competitors have spent billions building smelters and, as you know, there are very few turkeys voting for Christmas, so we’re obviously going down the path ourselves and we will be welcoming any other like-minded mining company that sees merit in presenting a green PGMs mining alternative.
Environmental, social and governance, or ESG, are three letters that we’re constantly hearing. Sedibelo is the only mining company I know of that has taken the firm step of appointing an ESG CEO. What green intensity is that bringing to your platinum mines?
Listen, you have to do more than just talk and if you mean this seriously, which we do, we need to create a commitment to ESG and not just ticking boxes. Ticking boxes has never gotten the mining industry anywhere. You need to be visionary, you need to do the right things and you need to do things that people can relate to, and it doesn't work putting a lot of sulphur into the air or burning a lot of coal – and all of that in order for you to produce an ounce of platinum to be put into fuel cells so you can drive around in London and not pollute, but you are polluting in South Africa. It doesn't work like that, so I think it's a change of mindset, it's a commitment to change, and it goes way back to some of the discussions you and I had two or three years ago, where you asked, what does it take for the mining industry to become the darling of the investment industry? Well, it takes doing the right thing, and we showed a commitment to doing it. People are tired of just hearing words.
We’ve spoken a lot about the E in ESG, but what of the S. What direct benefits are you bringing to the communities of South Africa’s North West and Canada’s Quebec?
We have a firm community programme where our host communities are direct shareholders, direct beneficiaries of what we're doing. In South Africa, the Bakgatla community own more than a quarter of the shares in the company directly and unencumbered, for the benefit of all the community. Our mining operation has hired 1 800 people, two-thirds of them from our local community and nearly 30% are women. When we go underground, we will employ more than double that number of people and that again will be benefiting the local community. We're also trying to do as much procurement as possible out of the community but it has always been a very healthy relationship and it has been a relationship of mutual respect, so we will continue doing more of the same. When it comes to Canada, at our Nemaska Lithium project, we are part of the Cree First Nation and again we entered, as one of the first mining companies of our kind, into an agreement in perpetuity that would benefit the community both financially but also through job creation and wealth sharing.
In a nutshell, what should be the key takeaway from this interview?
I think the key takeaway should be that if you put your mind to it, and you're committed to what you're saying, it can be done. We have been very fortunate in having the IDC as a partner and many of the efforts that we have commenced on over the past decade have been with the government as a partner, and we have been fortunate in that, but we have also actively worked on that relationship. If the companies take on their responsible role, if the communities take on their responsible role, and if the governments take on their responsible role, we can actually create something that is best-of-class globally, and we have that ability in South Africa. We should just believe a little bit more in ourselves.