REE, graphite, uranium, phosphate – we have to look to Africa; Japan forges new battery, solar cell technology
Africa is so much a key factor in all the commodities we cover here at InvestorIntel. For starters, there’s uranium — Niger is one of the world’s largest producers, Namibia is important, and there are promising leads in places like Mauritania and Guinea, and Mali. The Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) provided the uranium used in the bombs destined for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Phosphate — well, of course, Morocco is the world’s largest exporter and has by far the largest resources; but North Africa and Middle East from Morocco to Syria have been the source of about 20% of world supplies, but there’s also the expected re-emergence of Togo as a significant producer. Potash — we know all about the exciting projects in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the potential of Mali, the Republic of Congo and Angola. Graphite, too: Mozambique and Madagascar are among the producers of the future. And then there are rare earths, so think South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania and others.
And this, really, is only the beginning of Africa’s emergence as a key supplier of many of the critical metals needed to keep global industry and technology going.
The spectacular rise of Africa in this regard will be highlighted on Wednesday when, in Perth, Australia, the Africa Down Under conference gets under way. It’s the largest Africa mining conference outside Africa, and its growth is shown by the fact that this year it has to be split over two hotel venues.
The potential of Africa is shown by the fact that, important though they are, the products listed above take a back-seat at the conference. It is gold and copper, particularly, which dominate. There are presentations on graphite, potash, uranium and rare earths (as well as niobium), but I suggest that in future years we’ll be seeing our subjects take up a greater share of the conference’s attention. The whole story of critical commodities — and I include potash and phosphate in that category even though lists of “critical metals” tend not to. Some way is going to have to found to provide the extra food needed for the burgeoning billions of people as arable land areas dwindle.
But the future impact of potash/phosphate, REE, graphite and uranium will be increasingly recognised at conferences such as this in the years ahead. The Perth conference convenor Bill Repard has provided some perspective. When the first of these Africa Down Under meetings was held in 2003, it attracted just 70 delegates. This year there are 2,000 delegates, 135 exhibitors, 60 presentations, and the presence of 16 mining ministers from Africa, including from Botswana. Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and Nigeria.
By 2023, expect REE, uranium and the others to have affected a similar transformation in the attention of the Africa Down Under program.
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TECHNOLOGY: Japan is continuing to help lead the way in the fields of batteries and solar cells.
According to the Nikkei news service, innovation in storage batteries — the ones that can handle fluctuations in production from renewable sources, storing power for times when the sun doesn’t shine, the waves don’t roll in or the wind doesn’t blow — are heading into a “new paradigm”. Hokkaido Electric Power has announced plans to install a huge redox flow battery at a substation at the town of Abira. This can store 60,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity and supply 15,000 kw/h of power when needed. It will be the largest grid-connected storage battery system in the world, according to Nikkei.
Shin-Etsu Chemical Co has developed a lithium-ion battery whose storage capacity is 10 times that of present such products. Shin-Etsu plans commercial production within four years.
Now RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia (it grew out of the highly regarded Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) is working with the Japan Science and Technology Agency to develop the next generation of solar cells. Under RMIT’s Professor Yasuhiro Tachibana, the team is working to find ways to use lower cost metals — mainly copper and antimony — in nanocrystals. Currently cadmium and/or lead are used, but these have toxicity issues. The advantage of antimony and copper is they have low toxicity, and are comparatively cheap to process.
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