Zimbabwe and the magic of Lithium

Zimbabwean, Lee John, operations manager, with raw petolite lithium ore prior to calcification. Picture: Mark Andrews

Harare – Lithium. It’s a magic word these days, a headline catcher which will see Zimbabwe play a major international role producing material for tens of millions of batteries for electric cars which will, within eight years, account for 10 percent of all the world’s vehicles.

By Peta Thorncroft

China alone will produce 4.5 million electric cars – all needing lithium-ion batteries within the next two years.

Less then 40 kms from the centre of Harare, under first-class farm land which is at present lush with a soya bean crop, is one of the largest sources of lithium in Africa.

And within a couple of months a new mining company, Australian stock exchange-listed lithium miner, Prospect Resources Limited will begin the big dig to extract rock which will be crushed, concentrated, roasted, and then processed onsite into high grade Lithium Carbonate.

At the end of the line, a hugely expensive white powder, lithium carbonate, will emerge. And it will be exported as quick as a flash to markets desperate for more of this complex compound.

Lithium ore from here, less then 40 kms from Harare, will power up millions of batteries for electric cars around the world. Picture: Mark Andrews

Listed in Australia it is, but Prospect Resources is fundamentally a Zimbabwe company, created, dominated and staffed by locals which will produce 25 000 tones a year and annually earn the company at least $300 million until about 2038.

Zimbabwean Harry Greaves is director and headline maker, who successfully brought several of his family’s idle gold deposits in southern Zimbabwe back into full and profitable production over the last decade.

He was the star turn at Zimbabwe’s mining indaba in Harare this week, and set the tone for some cautious confidence that Zimbabwe’s mining sector could be set for recovery and expansion in the next few years on the back of the departure of Robert Mugabe after 37 years in power.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor, brought into the presidency via the military last November, never stops saying, “Zimbabwe is open for business.”

There is so much hope – and expectation – that he can use a calculator and will make every effort to attract foreign investment.

Greaves is excited and elated at the rush of international interest and money to get the Arcadia Lithium Project, Prospect Resources flagship operation, into production.  “The first investors were Africans, from Kwazulu Natal and Mauritius. And we expect to staff the whole project with Zimbabweans.”

Harry Greaves, on site at the Arcadia Lithium project. Picture: Mark Andrews

Since the early days of this project – less then two years ago  – the company has aggressively drilled and evaluated the Arcadia site and Greaves went marketing it, first to Australia, and from there he went “with a fixer” to find Chinese investors and technical information.

And he is recruiting. Mostly in Zimbabwe, and unusually the advertisement for professional staff says: “Candidates should be fit and able but there is NO limit on age of those who should apply. If you are 70 years-old, and can do the job we will welcome your experience and provide you with junior engineers to mentor and handle the admin.”

The geologist who owned the claim is also a Zimbabwean, Paul Chimbodza who has joined the company and is elated at the pace at which it is all moving forward. “I am a Zimbabwe geologist, and I started exploring for and putting together various mineral assets from 1996.  We moved ahead and decided we wanted minerals of the future and for niche markets.

“Arcadia had of course been mined before. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority extensively explored for beryl (mineral) in Zimbabwe including the Arcadia deposit which was subsequently mined by a few other players.  I am very happy to be involved in this project.”

Zimbabwe’s new mines minister Winston Chitando said at the mining indaba: “We believe we have the potential to actually account for 20 percent of global demand when all known lithium resources are being exploited.” He said he expects Zimbabwe to produce ten percent of the world’s lithium in four years.

Good news, not least because the price of the compound doubled in the last two years.

Greg Mosley, a British, independent consulting geologist, said this week that he had high regard for the Arcadia Lithium project.  “It’s among the top 30 percent of deposits in the world. It has the potential to be a big money spinner, and Prospect Resources have done a very good job so far, and clearly understand the geology very well and applied it to their mine planning.”

For investors, the  company says on its site: “Prospect Resources Limited (ASX:PSC) is a Southern Africa focused Lithium and Gold mining and exploration company based in Perth with operations in Zimbabwe…” It … “represents a globally significant hard rock lithium resource and has been aggressively developed focusing on near term production of petalite and spodumene concentrates.”

Hugh Warner, Australian chairman of the company said that Prospect will produce “high grade battery quality lithium carbonate that exceeds industry norms, bodes well. This entire process has been designed and built in-country using local skills and services further demonstrating the business friendly environment that Zimbabwe is rapidly becoming.”

IOL – Independent Foreign Service