The Department of Science and Technology has invested about R50 million in its lithium ion battery programme in a bid to position South Africa in the global energy sector, said the Director-General of Science and Technology, Dr Phil Mjwara, addressing an International Energy Storage workshop in Mpumalanga. International energy players, academia and business attended the two-day workshop.

 

The lithium ion battery programme, established in 2011, has trained students and generated intellectual property and knowledge.  Moreover, it has seen the establishment of research, development and innovation infrastructure in the form of the Lithium Ion Battery Pilot Plant Precursor Facility, which is being hosted by the University of Limpopo.

 

The Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, launched the facility in Nelspruit on 12 October 2017.  The Minister said that the pilot plant would help to take the country closer to its goal of developing precursor materials for lithium ion batteries through the exploitation of its large manganese deposits.

 

South Africa is home to 80% of the world's high-grade manganese ore deposits, and currently exports it at $100 per tonne.  If it can be beneficiated, and a lithium manganese oxide precursor can be developed at commercial scale, its export value would increase significantly, to as much as $2 000 per tonne.

 

The initiative also holds positive developments for the economy and job creation.

 

"As we develop our national system of innovation, the spin-offs will be directly reflected in the impact that our national efforts make on poverty," said Dr Mjwara.

 

The Director-General referred to figures recently released by the Statistics South Africa, which showed that 30 million South Africans were living in poverty.

 

"That is more than half of the South African population," he said, emphasising that science, technology and innovation should, among other things, respond to the plight of the poor. 

 

Manganese-based precursors were a huge potential contributor to minerals beneficiation in the Government's Nine-Point Plan, he added.

 

"The export of high-value precursors to a global market for lithium ion batteries would increase the value of local manganese raw materials and build manganese beneficiation capacity in South Africa.  Given the rate of global adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles, the need for energy storage technologies is increasing," said Mjwara.

 

According to Bertie Strydom of the Independent Development Corporation, energy storage is globally considered the new wave in the energy sector, and it is critical for South Africa to get its foot in the door without delay. 

 

Between 2016 and 2024, some $44bn is expected to be invested in storage.  The top five markets are Japan, India, the United States, China and Europe.

 

Strydom said that if the pilot project at the newly launched facility was successful, the country should go for commercialisation, and partner with international stakeholders to penetrate the global market. He said this would require government, industry and researchers to work together.

 

Eskom's Peter Langley said the power utility had been involved in testing energy storage for the past 16 years. He said finding a successful energy storage solution would take pressure off the grid and increase security of supply.