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Manganese poised to make its mark as EV metal

5th June 2019 BY: Martin Creamer
Creamer Media Editor
Watch this video on YouTube

JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Manganese could make its mark in the battery electric vehicle (EV) arena by displacing cobalt to a large extent in many of the cathode formulations, where the bulk of battery metals are used.

The Junior Indaba heard on Wednesday that manganese, which South Africa hosts in abundance, is in a race with nickel, cobalt and aluminium to win the favour of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) concerned about cobalt’s high concentration in a single country, where ethical issues also cloud its use. (Also watch attached Creamer Media video.)

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The favourable positioning of manganese surfaced during a panel discussion on strategic metals, led by Impala Platinum mining executive and Women in Mining chairperson Thabile Makgala, and made up of Standard Bank commodities analyst Thabang Thlaku, Manganese Metal Company chief marketing officer Madelein Todd, Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe executive director Paul Chimbodza and Ivanplats senior VP Gerick Mouton.

It was Todd who caught the attention of Mining Weekly Online when she outlined the exciting new potential trajectory for manganese, and, with lithium already home and dry as a strategic EV metal, Chimbodza stunned the audience with his revelation that Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe had moved at lightning speed from explorer to lithium producer with a long-term Chinese offtake agreement.

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“All new generation EV batteries contain lithium. That’s the common denominator. But there are a variety of other materials, different cathode formulations. There are anodes in a battery as well,” said Todd.

“In terms of the cathode formulation, which is where the bulk of the metals that go into batteries are used, there is a race between nickel, cobalt, manganese and aluminium for the different cathode formulations. The cathode formulation is a trade-off between cost, raw material availability and battery performance.

“The lithium supplier knows he is going to have a buyer, but all of the other metals are in this race and one of the key metals that triggered the race between the different cathode formulations is cobalt. The reason for that is its supply is highly concentrated in one country and some ethical issues that cloud it, and then its long-term price outlook makes battery makers uncomfortable," Todd explained.

”To get in on your strategic metal, you need to know which one of these cathode formulations to pursue. That’s where manganese is really poised for a very rapid development. Manganese and nickel can displace cobalt to a large extent in many of the cathode formulations,” she said.

The 45-year-old Manganese Metal Company (MCC), which Todd represents, is best known as a global supplier of electrolytic manganese metal (EMM).

It is located in Mbombela, previously known as Nelspruit, and sells its product into a variety of high-technology, top-end applications.

Now it is right in the middle of the EV trajectory, where old metals will have new applications.

As the world’s largest producer of manganese, South Africa stands to benefit from the EV growth if it succeeds in cracking the cathode formulation code.

The fact that EVs will only become fully green once they are charged from renewable energy sources means an even bigger potential horizon for manganese as the use of sun and wind energy would require the emergence of two types of battery ­– one in the car and the other out of it and used to store energy.

“So, there’s a nice growth trajectory ahead of us,” said Todd.

Last year, the global sales of EVs were 2.1-million units out of a total passenger market of more than 80-million units.

“So, it’s early days. While we’re young and energetic, both platinum group metals and battery materials will be required but ultimately, in the longer term, for a total green economy, the need for engines and exhaust systems will fall away,” Todd predicted, which means that manganese could become better known as a high-purity product for batteries than it is as a manganese alloy in steel production.

MMC, which is chaired by mining luminary and Junior Indaba chairperson Bernard Swanepoel, describes itself as the world’s only high-grade EMM producer outside of China and the world’s largest producer of 99.9% selenium-free EMM.

HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS

Thlaku told the Junior Indaba that, in the last 18 months to two years, Standard Bank had seen an increase in the number of investor questions relating to EVs or fuel cell type of commodities and spoke of a lot of interest in copper, cobalt, lithium and manganese.

“I think clients want to position themselves well as investors for future commodities because technology is changing and I think at this point, none of us really knows which is going to take off. Is it going to be battery electric vehicles, or is it going to be hydrogen fuel cells? While the market is still uncertain, a lot of clients are asking a lot of questions about those commodities,” she said, adding that clients wanted to position themselves well as investors for future commodities, but there was still uncertainty about which technology would be the most dominant.

Mouton expressed strong belief in platinum group metals, which were relatively young metals when compared with copper and gold that had been used for centuries.

Chimbodza said that although his company was primarily in lithium, it had aspirations to be in all battery minerals.

Mining Weekly Online reported last month that a new manganese-containing material may contribute to platinum-using hydrogen fuel cells being driven down the cost curve. The new material, made from manganese hydride, is being earmarked for use in molecular sieves that work with the fuel cells in hydrogen fuelled systems that generate electricity.

Science Daily quotes Professor David Antonelli, the physical chemistry chairperson at Lancaster University, as saying the use of manganese-based sieves may result in hydrogen fuel cell systems costing many times less than lithium-ion batteries used in EVs.

As countries tighten emission standards that define the acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new vehicles sold, hydrogen fuel cells are coming into their own. CXLive reports that Chinese vehicle dealerships will no longer be allowed to sell vehicles that do not comply with the upcoming sixth emission standard in China, which is giving strong ongoing support to the development of hydrogen fuel projects.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are EVs that use hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity with the help of platinum.

The by-product is water and there is no exhaust emission. Hydrogen filling stations are needed to support fuel cell EVs, which is why hydrogen infrastructure is being rolled out in many countries. In the US, for example, the state of California is targeting 1 000 hydrogen fuel stations by 2030 for its growing number of fuel cell EVs that currently refuel at 39 hydrogen stations, with another 25 in the development phase.

Anglo American Platinum CEO Chris Griffith told the Platinum Group Metals Industry Day earlier this year of “very real and credible progress being made in the development of the hydrogen economy”, which is being benchmarked as the sole route to 100% carbon-free driving for cars, trucks, buses, trams, trains and ships, in a world that is legislating to end harmful vehicle emissions.

“From start to finish, not a single gram of carbon dioxide is emitted,” Anglo American executive head of PGMs market development Benny Oeyen assured Mining Weekly Online in a recent video interview.

What is more, hydrogen can store excess electricity for placement on power grids at times when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can travel 600 km to 700 km before needing to fill up in two to three minutes at filling stations.

Hydrogen, which is clean, is generated in abundance by the sun, with the oceans storing voided hydrogen that can be regenerated to active hydrogen.

Currently, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Shanghai Automotive International Company Motor Corporation of China (SAIC) have hydrogen fuel cell cars on the market. SAIC, which is the joint venture partner of General Motors and Volkswagen, the two market leaders in China, has the Roewe 950 fuel cell car.

Many more vehicle manufacturers are also studying fuel cell EVs, which dovetail perfectly with the world’s adoption of renewable energy to combat climate change. 

EDITED BY: Creamer Media Reporter
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