Lithium in Zimbabwean economy

Report by Frank Isaac

What do iPhones, laptops, smart watches and Tesla cars have in common? Batteries, of course, and more often than not these are lithium-ion batteries. Naturally those batteries require some form of lithium as a key ingredient and Zimbabwe is lucky to have decent lithium deposits that are commercially viable. The fastest growing industry in the world is the lithium battery industry. The lithium market is estimated to grow by approximately 8.9% through 2019 to 49,350 metric tonnes. In lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE)
terms, the value of the global lithium market is projected to reach $1,7 billion. The growth will be driven by rapid expansion in the lithium-ion battery industry as world demand for hybrid and electric vehicles, energy storage systems, and high-drain portable electronics continues to grow. Zimbabwe should take advantage of this as it has the capacity to become one of the biggest lithium producer in the world.

1. Zimbabwe has more than 60 lithium deposits with some still being discovered. Recently new lithium deposits were discovered in areas around Harare. The biggest producers are Australia and Chile. Currently, Zimbabwe is the world’s 5th largest lithium producer with only a single mine operating. Only Bikita Minerals is producing, but there are four other promising projects under development namely Kamativi, Zulu Lithium in Bulawayo and Lutope Lithium (Hwange). The country’s privately owned Bikita Minerals is the only lithium producer, and allegedly holds the world’s largest-known lithium deposit at over 11 million tonnes. Total reserves stand at 70,000 metric tons, as per the US Geological
Survey. This shows that there is vast untapped potential in the sector, as the country is only producing a fraction of its total potential output.

2. Not only is Zimbabwe one of the richest countries in the world in terms of lithium deposits, but it is also estimated that Zimbabwe has the potential to supply 20 percent of the world’s lithium when all known lithium resources are being exploited not taking into account the unknown lithium deposits. This will translate to employment creation both in direct and indirect ways. The Arcadia Lithium Mine in Chikwaka, Goromonzi that President Mnangagwa officiated the ground breaking last year on the 28th of November is expected to employ more than 1000 people directly in the early stages of production and this will have trickle-down to the other sectors of the economy such as banking services and also infrastructure developments such as school, roads and houses for the mining workers. The lithium sector is one of the major economic projects that will drive Zimbabwe’s vision of middle income status by 2030 and US$12 billion mining industry by 2023.

3. The transition to electric vehicles and adoption of electric power technologies is gaining momentum especially in the first world with major global car manufacturers such as American automaker, Tesla becoming a household name in the production of electric vehicles. Lithium is emerging as the most sought after mineral in the manufacture of the common batteries which power these vehicles due to its high power to weight ratio which increases vehicle performance. This has resulted in the price of lithium doubling in the past two years as demand has been shooting up. The world’s largest vehicle manufacturer,
China, for example, plans to make 20 percent of its cars EVs by 2025, while Britain and France are targeting to go 100 percent EV by 2040. Increased Lithium production will ease our Balance of payment deficit as the country will longer rely mostly on Tobacco, gold and diamonds for foreign currency.

4. Lithium is a key ingredient for a future where global warming is reduced, low-carbon economies thrive and everyone drives an electric car. Environmentalists have been advocating for the use of this white energy as it is eco-friendly. Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable, lighter and more environmentally-friendly than the traditional lead-acid batteries. In addition, they make it possible to store energy from renewable sources such as hydroelectric, solar and wind. This will reduce the power shortages that Zimbabwe is currently faced with, as domestically households will be able to store electricity power on the lithium batteries and can be drawn on during periods of low solar production. The demand of power on the national grid will reduce significantly as it will be very expensive.

5.Lithium also has some medical uses. It is used to treat the manic episodes of bipolar disorder (manic depression). Manic symptoms include hyperactivity, rushed speech, poor judgment, and reduced need for sleep, aggression, and anger. Lithium also helps to prevent or lessen the intensity of manic episodes. It is estimated that about more that 2 million people in the United States of America alone suffer from some form of bipolar disorder and they are prescribed medication that is made from lithium. Demand for lithium will also be strong in the smaller aluminum alloy market, where lithium is used to reduce weight and improve alloy strength.Other major markets for lithium include glass ,ceramics and lubricating grease markets.

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