By Gavin du Venage, South African Editor

Zimbabwe could become a major world supplier of lithium concentrate. The southern African country has a large resource of spodumene, a pyroxene mineral consisting of lithium aluminum inosilicate. This is processed into lithium, which can then be used in a wide variety of modern technologies.

Zimbabwe already ranks as the fifth largest producer of lithium concentrate, albeit from a single mine. Bikita Minerals, in the south of the country, has been in production for more than 50 years, producing lithium feedstock, mostly for the ceramics industry.  

Now, with worldwide demand for lithium at an all-time high, others are looking to get in. One such project is Zimbabwe Lithium, which will soon begin processing the tailings dump of an abandoned tin mine. The Kamativi Tailings project lies near the Zambian border, and has at least 1.5 million tons of spodumene waiting to be extracted, said John McTaggart, Kamativi Tailings Co. managing director. 

“During the years Kamativi operated as a tin mine, spodumene wasn’t considered valuable,” McTaggart said. “It was tossed out with the waste material.” 

The recovered minerals from the tailings dump will help drive the project to its end point, greenfield mining. “Our vision is to develop the mine into a hard rock producer,” McTaggart said.

Zimbabwe’s grade of spodumene is particularly good compared to its peers worldwide; about 6.7 grams per metric ton (g/mt), compared with a global average of 5.5 g/mt.

To extract lithium, the feedstock mineral goes through a multistep process. Crushed into a pulp, and put through a floatation process, it is a tricky process to get right. This is one of the reasons China has dominated lithium-based production up to now.

“This isn’t so much a mining operation, as a chemical production process,” said McTaggart. Australian miners found this to their cost when initial lithium extraction led to quality problems with the final product, which was then sold to Chinese battery makers. The result, according to McTaggart, was poor quality batteries and a huge of loss of business for some Australian mines.

“Quality is critical,” he said. “If the feedstock is out of spec, the batteries will be out of sync with what the manufacturers want.”

Although it’s early days, eventually Zimbabwe could go into full beneficiation, manufacturing batteries within the country. Already Zimbabwe is mass importing energy storage and alternative generation such as solar panels. The country now has less than six hours of electricity a day, and by the end of August, the state-owned power utility Zesa Holdings (Zesa) was reportedly on the brink of collapse. Zimbabwe requires 1,800 megawatts per day, most of which comes from coal and the Kariba Hydroelectric Power Plant on the Zambezi river. Low water levels over the past few years have curtailed Kariba’s output to about 20% of its normal electricity production.

The Hwange thermal coal power station, the country’s largest, is more than 50 years old and prone to frequent breakdowns. Even diesel and gasoline for generators is hard to come by. A critical shortage of foreign currency means fuel can only be imported in limited quantities. As a result, any non-traditional power source is being coopted. One example is that of Econet, Zimbabwe’s main mobile services provider, which will deploy around 550 Tesla Powerwalls at a cost of US$6,500 each, to keep its towers functioning. Econet will use solar panels during the day, with batteries taking over at night.  

“Econet is all across Africa, and they’re spending a huge amount on diesel,” McTaggart said. “They need to cut their fuel bill down while maintaining services. Most people use their phones for internet, banking and other services. If Econet is down, the entire economy goes offline.” 

He added that Zimbabwe’s new mines minister, Winston Chitando, is a “breath of fresh air” to the industry. Plans by the administration of the late Robert Mugabe to force miners to hand controlling equity to locals, have now been scrapped. “I’ve known Winston for 30 years and he knows what needs to be done to revitalize Zimbabwe’s mining industry,” he added.