RioZim Limited plans to upgrade its Empress Nickel Refinery so that it can start processing lithium given huge investor appetite to exploit lithium in the country.
The move by RioZim also follows the announcement by Government of a 5 percent tax on exports of unprocessed lithium beginning January 2019.
Lithium has become the much-sought after mineral not only in Zimbabwe, but across the world as the automotive industry moves towards electric cars, which, among other things, use lithium batteries.
Zimbabwe has lithium occurrences in Bikita, Gweru, Kamativi and just outside Harare.
Investors are currently jostling to get lithium mining licences in Zimbabwe and a foreign firm has already inked a deal with Government. The deal will see the firm investing up to US$1,4 billion in a lithium project in Matabeleland North.
The Harare deposits are being mined by Prospect Resources while Bikita Minerals is mining in Bikita.
Last week, RioZim chief executive officer, Mr Bheki Nkomo told The Sunday Mail Business that it is commercially viable to beneficiate lithium locally.
Mr Nkomo also explained that it is cost-effective to upgrade the existing base metal refinery as opposed to setting up a new one.
“We have a refinery and we are considering to upgrade it so that beneficiation takes place locally,” said Mr Nkomo.
“Setting up a new refinery is very expensive. RioZim already has it so we can easily work together with the guys who are producing the concentrate, and everything will then be directed to the upgraded refinery.
“There is no need for lithium miners to spend too much capital building another refinery. As partners, let’s come together and upgrade what is there. The refinery can beneficiate all locally produced nickel and chrome, which can be sold anywhere in the world. It can now beneficiate lithium.”
RioZim’s Empress Nickel Refinery is one of the few functional base metal refineries in Southern Africa.
The refinery has unique capabilities and can be reconfigured to produce both technical and battery grade lithium carbonate from spodumene concentrates (which come from the initial processing of lithium).
Mr Nkomo said RioZim has already carried out feasibility studies on its refinery and is aware of the requirements to upgrade the plant to process concentrates.
Key attributes that RioZim possesses which are expected to support the project are the availability of internal technical expertise, access to a reliable power source, a good road and railway network close by and adequate space to store the concentrate. The refinery also has handling facilities for the concentrate. Mines and Mining Development Minister Winston Chitando said Zimbabwe is experiencing a rise in investor enquiries targeting lithium extraction. The country is now targeting to produce 10 percent of world lithium output in the next four years.
“We do have, probably one of the latest minerals – the new kid on the block – lithium. As a country, we have witnessed phenomenal interest in the extraction of lithium. There is a huge dump in the Kamativi area which will generate about US$1,7 billion.
“But besides that dump, there is in-situ material in the Kamativi area which Government would want exploited.
‘‘At the moment, ZMDC, which holds some other assets in the Kamativi area, is entering into a $10 million resource quantification exercise of the assets in Kamativi.
“We are looking at achieving a production of at least 10 percent in the next four years of world lithium. And certainly it should go to plus or minus 20 percent (in future),” said Minister Chitando.
Government also plans to set up a lithium battery manufacturing plant.
Zimbabwe is understood to be one of the top lithium producers in the world after China, Chile, Australia and Argentina.
The rise in lithium powered batteries across the world, following the increase in electrical vehicle production, has spawned the massive demand for lithium exploitation.
It is hoped that the market for electric vehicles will hit $100 billion in the next two years.
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