Zimbabwe Pushes for Local Lithium Refinery Development

Zimbabwe Pushes for Local Lithium Refinery Development

Mandatory Refinery Plans for Lithium Miners

Zimbabwe has set a deadline of March 2024 for lithium mining companies to submit plans for the local production of battery-grade lithium. This initiative, announced by Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube, is part of the country’s strategy to capitalize on the increasing demand for the clean energy mineral. Zimbabwe, already Africa’s top lithium producer, is looking to add value to its exports rather than shipping raw lithium ore or concentrates.

Export Restrictions and Economic Impact

The country imposed a ban last year on exporting lithium ore and introduced a 5% tax on lithium concentrates. As a key component in electric vehicle batteries and renewable energy storage, lithium has become a significant foreign currency earner for Zimbabwe. In the first nine months of 2023, lithium exports generated $209 million, ranking as the third biggest mineral export after platinum group metals (PGM) and gold.

Defining Beneficiation in Lithium Production

In his 2024 national budget presentation, Ncube emphasized that the production of lithium concentrates does not qualify as beneficiation under the government’s definition. Beneficiation refers to processes that enhance the value of raw minerals. The government expects lithium producers to go beyond concentrates, aiming for the production of lithium carbonate, a key component in battery manufacturing.

New Licensing Requirements

Moving forward, Zimbabwe will not issue new licenses to lithium mining ventures without approved beneficiation plans. This requirement is in line with the government’s objective to ensure that mineral extraction leads to broader economic benefits within the country.

Chinese Investments and Feasibility Studies

Zimbabwe’s substantial hard-rock lithium reserves have attracted over $1 billion in investments, predominantly from Chinese companies such as Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, Sinomine Resource Group, Chengxin Lithium Group, Yahua Group, and Canmax Technologies. Sinomine, for instance, has recently launched a $300 million spodumene concentrator and is conducting feasibility studies for producing battery-grade lithium locally.

Challenges in Refining

Huayou Cobalt, another major investor, has expressed concerns about local production of lithium sulphate, citing the lack of essential inputs like renewable energy and sulphuric acid. Similarly, PGM miners in Zimbabwe have found it challenging to establish local refineries due to insufficient electricity and mineral resources to justify the significant capital investment required.

Zimbabwe’s Strategic Move

By mandating local beneficiation and refinery development, Zimbabwe aims to maximize the economic benefits from its lithium resources. This strategy, however, poses significant challenges, including the need for substantial investments in infrastructure and technology to support these advanced processing capabilities. icon

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