Carter Chapwanya Correspondent
There is no doubt that Zimbabwe is blessed with abundant natural resources but so do other countries in the Southern African region. Therefore, for the country to rise from its present economic situation, we need to focus our energies on the resources that our neighbours do not have in commensurate abundance.
The potential discovery of oil in the country rejuvenated patriotic Zimbabweans’ hope for a brighter future as we have all seen how the coveted liquid can turn a barren wasteland into a metropolitan paradise in a few short years. But as we wait for that to become a reality, lithium ion could be our “ace under the sleeve” as it is becoming highly sought after by emerging technologies.
Lithium is what many in the energy community are calling the “new oil” because the world is gravitating towards clean energy. Lithium ion is one of the major components of the best battery tech used in the electric gadget and auto industry by companies like Tesla, who are already giving petroleum car manufacturers sleepless nights by developing exquisite electric vehicles.
The batteries are made with cells that use lithium as the positive cathode and graphite as the negative anode, encased with conductive surfaces like aluminium on one side and copper on the other and they also require other elements like nickel, tin and cobalt.
However, many of these other components in these batteries like copper, aluminium, tin, graphite and nickel are readily available in the region which therefore means that lithium could be our biggest asset and regional comparative advantage as the world continues to go green.
China is already consuming over 18 gigawatt hours of lithium ion batteries annually just for buses and they are in the process of transitioning their bus fleets to zero emission technologies and this means that they won’t be in a position to provide all the lithium required by other car and battery manufacturers that need it.
The Asian giant is also the leading manufacturer of solar panels and is on a drive to gradually move away from fossil fuel-generated energy by constructing solar and wind power farms and this also increases the need for lithium as more batteries would be needed for storage of excess energy to be used at night or when there is no wind or sunlight. Sonnen and Tesla are among the other companies involved in the home energy storage battery development and they are using the same lithium ion tech for those batteries.
Tesla is currently the leader of private and freight electric vehicle manufacturing but the company repealed its patent to enable other companies to also make electric vehicles using its AC induction method and other big companies have already committed to investing more in the development of good electric vehicles with sustainable range capacity.
Honda, Volvo, Chevrolet, VW and Ford are just a few of the big car manufacturers that will be releasing their high range EVs next year and the global demand for lithium and cobalt is only going to increase.
As we march on towards the 2030 middle-income society dream, it is imperative that we work towards revitalising our industries so as to catch up and compete with our regional colleagues. Our vast deposits of lithium can definitely help us achieve this especially if we work on developing energy storage technologies that will make us relevant in the new clean energy powered world.
This therefore makes the recent opening of the Arcadia Lithium Mine in Arcturus, Goromonzi, by the President a very welcome development. The plan, if what Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said is to be interpreted correctly, is to process the lithium locally and develop high-end technologies within our borders.
Zimbabwe is currently the fifth largest producer of lithium in the world but it may be time for us to consider investing more resources not only in the extraction of the mineral but harnessing its new age “power” for our local energy needs and exporting processed lithium ion products.
The green energy revolution is happening faster than previously predicted and in the new world of clean energy, our lithium reserves put us in pole position for greater future exploits regionally. Tesla is in the process of opening a factory in China because China is currently the largest producer of lithium, so who is to say Honda or some other large car manufacturers will not come knocking on our doors soon?
Our southern neighbour is highly industrialised and has for decades benefited from our woes by wooing in our skilled workers and experts and only exporting processed goods back. They have enjoyed a regional monopoly for too long and this has only aggravated our problems. Zambia has vast reserves of copper and cobalt, Botswana has lots of diamonds, Angola has oil and natural gas, our eastern neighbour has the Beira port and access to the Indian Ocean but if we leverage our lithium well, we may just outshine or at least catch up with our neighbours way before 2030.
Carter Chapwanya is a published author and currently a Political Science PhD candidate at Shandong University in China.