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Huge manganese value-add opportunity reiterated at Junior Indaba

From left, Kudakwashe Maramba, George Roach, Ntsiki Adonisi, Louis Nel, Jaco Prinsloo, Bernard Swanepoel.

From left, Kudakwashe Maramba, George Roach, Ntsiki Adonisi, Louis Nel, Jaco Prinsloo, Bernard Swanepoel.

22nd May 2024

By: Martin Creamer

Creamer Media Editor

     

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JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – The huge opportunity that South Africa has to add value to its rich endowment of manganese through local processing was reiterated during the second day of Wednesday’s Junior Indaba.

“Specific to manganese, we’re certainly very bullish,” Manganese Metal Co (MMC) CEO Louis Nel said in response to questioning by Fluor sales director Kudakwashe Maramba during a panel discussion.

Maramba facilitated the panel discussion, in which ENS natural resources and environment practice head Ntsiki Adonisi, Premier African Minerals CEO George Roach and Sylvania Platinum CEO Jaco Prinsloo also participated.

“South Africa is really blessed to have 80% of the world’s manganese resources, so I think as a country, South Africa should really take the manganese processing challenge really seriously,” Nel told the audience at the event covered by Mining Weekly.

“Manganese is going to be critical. From a mining point of view, there’s enough manganese but processing manganese is presenting a huge opportunity and I think as a country, we should take that forward,” Nel reiterated.

The 50-year-old Mpumalanga-based MMC is the world’s oldest refiner of electrolytic manganese metal, which has for the last decade, predominantly by its customers in Japan, been converted into a manganese sulphate battery product for use in electric vehicles (EVs).

Manganese sulphate now makes up 20% of the Mbombela company’s production at a time when the EV market is demanding manganese sulphate, 97% of which originates out of China.

With the big manganese sulphate opportunity rapidly unfolding, MMC now expects its next 50 years to revolve around EVs and battery metals, amid the implementation of America’s Inflation Reduction Act and current global geopolitical considerations.

In its traditional steel and aluminium markets, which continue to constitute 80% of its current production, MMC also competes directly with China

The growth opportunity that it envisages for itself is not to substitute its current markets, but to install additional capacity into the manganese sulphate space and to grow via the battery space.

In response to Integral Asset Management CIO Bruce Williamson on the barriers to entry into the manganese sulphate market and whether South Africa has a competitive advantage over China in this field, Nel said that South Africa is unable to compete with China on a cost basis owing to the expensive local cost of capital and the high cost of local processing.

“But on a quality basis, it’s much of a muchness,” said Nel.

Regarding the barriers to entry, he added that the processing of manganese sulphate presents a technology challenge.

“Globally, there are 12 plants currently making manganese sulphate and 11 of those are in China. There really is no technical ability so to go to a technical resource to help you set up a manganese sulphate plant is hugely challenging, unless you go to China.

“Going to China certainly is an option to get technical resources made available, but it is technically difficult to make high-purity manganese sulphate. The levels of purity required for the battery industry is really tough,” Nel responded.

FINANCE DISCUSSION

MMC is in discussions with South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation regarding the funding of an ore-to-sulphate project, on which R540-million will be spent in Mbombela as soon as the details have been finalised.

In the meantime, it is dissolving its 99.9% pure manganese metal, the world’s purest manganese metal that is made from manganese fines, and then recrystalising it for shipping as manganese sulphate to meet demand.

With the crystalliser, MMC will be leapfrogging over its own ore-to-sulphate project.

MMC has broken soil and is busy preparing the site for the crystalliser in the same location where the ore-to sulphate project will be, with some extra land, that is available, taken up.

Manganese sulphate is the form in which precursor manufacturers want manganese because it is as sulphate that they blend with lithium, nickel, cobalt, and so on.

So for MMC, this is a further incremental advance on its already pure manganese metal, which is converted into a salt as part of an approved R130-million for the first step being taken.

Involved is the conversion of 2 000 t of metal into 6 000 t of sulphate and this is expected to take place in a matter of 18 to 20 months, rather than the five years needed for the ore-to-sulphate project.

“So, critically, we get the top quality product to the market when the market wants it. Now obviously one could assume that from then on there would be subsequent steps.

Manganese brings strength and is relatively cheap when compared with some of the other minerals going into batteries.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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