Battery pilot could power up 1 600 jobs

A new research pilot plant for manufacturing materials used in batteries could ultimately lead to the creation of 1 600 jobs.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor launched the Lithium Ion Battery (LIB) precursor pilot plant facility, established in partnership with the University of Limpopo, in Mbombela this week.

The facility’s project manager, Danie Theron, said the Mbombela plant had 12 staff members and would be run for the next five years.

By then a decision would probably have been made about establishing a fully fledged plant, once a feasibility study had been completed.

Pandor said once production reached 10 000 tons per year, it was envisaged that 200 direct jobs and 1 400 indirect jobs could be created. The facility was expected to have an annual turnover of R310 million.

South Africa has begun positioning itself to reap rewards from the growing renewable energy industry by investing R30 million in the research pilot plant for the manufacture of materials to be used in batteries.

This facility had been established for research purposes and was a forerunner to a plant that would be established in one of the harbour cities – Cape Town, Port Elizabeth or Durban – in about five years, to produce materials for the international market.

Manufactured from manganese, they are used in batteries for vehicles, cellphones, laptops, watches, digital cameras and some medical devices such as pacemakers.

South Africa has huge potential to grow in this market because 80% of the world’s high-grade manganese ore reserves are found in the country.

Theron said: “The battery material market is expected to grow, due to the growth in the renewable energy space, to a similar size as the liquid fuels industry.

“We’ve observed the announcement by Volkswagen, BMW and others about their conversion to electric vehicles. The question is how do we position ourselves to participate in this industry to ensure that we’re part of the value chain?” Theron asked.

He said the mandate of the pilot plant was to make sure that manganese was processed locally, instead of being exported, to add value in the country.

“If we beneficiate the raw material ourselves that will add value of at least twentyfold. These products’ values are 20 times higher than the raw manganese ore,” Theron said.

At present, manganese ore is exported for $100 per ton while the lithium manganese oxide precursor costs about $2 000 per ton.

Pandor said the objective of the programme was to develop energy storage technologies that met Eskom’s requirements for on-grid storage, renewable energy integration and electric vehicles.

“We know that one of our biggest challenges in South Africa is providing energy to our homes and industries. We have some of the best conditions for solar energy in the world, and sufficient wind energy potential to provide us with most of our energy needs,” she said.

The pilot facility was launched in partnership with the University of Limpopo’s materials modelling centre, where postgraduate students are doing research in the area of energy storage.

The university’s vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Mahlo Mokgalong, said the facility would help the institution make an impact in this field.

“We believe that this project will position us as a world-class global supplier of manganese-based cathode materials for the international LIB industry.”

He said he hoped the project would expand the base of this research and result in more collaborations and partnerships.

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