An Abundance of Mineral Reserves Put Africa at Forefront of the Clean Energy Transition
The technologies needed for the clean energy transition will be powered by African reserves of critical minerals.
For nearly 200 years, the world has run on carbon-based energy, commonly called “fossil fuels”. The very first steam engines were powered by coal, and the discovery of crude and development of refining technologies have produced fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and kerosene, along with methane-based “natural gas”. While these fuels may have powered an industrial and technological revolution, there is an admittance that the world cannot continue to run on fossil fuels, mainly due to the adverse effects of the carbon which they emit. As such, there is a transition being carried out, from fossil-based energy to renewable energy.
This coming transition will be built on minerals and mining on an unprecedented scale. The “transition” minerals will be ll be sorely needed in the development of low-carbon energy sources. These are technologies to be used in the conversion of solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal resources into energy. Critical minerals such as nickel, cobalt, manganese, lithium, neodymium, samarium, and yttrium are all needed for the manufacture of low-carbon energy infrastructure such as solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. They, and a lot of others, are also all found on the African continent.
South Africa possesses as much as 91% of the world’s platinum. It is also a leading source of palladium, rhodium, iridium, and ruthenium. These minerals, often referred to as platinum-group minerals (PGM), are essential in the making of catalysts for catalytic converters. While platinum has frequently been used as a catalyst in the oil refining process, the same properties it possesses lend it and other PGMs to usage in proton-exchange membrane (PEM) technologies. PEM technologies can also be applied to producing energy from hydrogen, which can then be used through fuel cells to power electric vehicles. Hydrogen is set to play a major role in the energy transition. Hence, PGMs are critical minerals, and South Africa will become the hub in years to come. Per the United States Geological Survey’s Mineral Commodities Summaries, released in 2022, South Africa contains nearly 90% of the world’s PGM reserves.
A major part of the transition to renewable energy sources is batteries and battery technology. Batteries are a major component of electric vehicles: the release and conversion of chemical energy stored up into electrical energy which powers the vehicle. Batteries are also often needed in the deployment of other renewable energies such as solar, wind, and hydrogen power. If energy will come from electricity, then some of that electricity must be stored away for future deployment. Energy sources such as wind and solar are notoriously intermittent and can only produce constant power through storage.
Minerals like graphite, lithium, and cobalt are essential to electricity-centred clean energy technologies. The World Bank report, “Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition”, finds that the production of these minerals will need to be as high as 3.1 billion tons per year to facilitate clean energy deployment. Only production of this level will be able to keep excessive global warming at bay. The Democratic Republic of Congo holds 48-50% of the world’s cobalt reserves and was responsible for 72% of global production in 2021. Per the Natural Resource Governance Institute, Africa holds 22% of the world’s graphite.
Africa is also home to 56% of the world’s manganese. South Africa holds 22% of global reserves, with another 15% found in Gabon. Manganese, which has been referred to as being a member of the ‘big four’ critical elements – along with cobalt, chromium, and the PGMs – is useful in creating alloys that can be used in anything from batteries to semi-conductors and permanent magnets, a crucial component of wind turbines. Chromium, of which 40% of global reserves can be found in Africa, and 35% in South Africa, is also used to create alloys found in technologies from batteries to solar panels.
It is clear that Africa will play a large part in the coming industrial revolution and energy transition. There are opportunities aplenty, but there are also threats and pitfalls. The continent has so far not reaped the rewards of its bountiful mineral reserves. Attempts to exploit the continent’s rich reserves have been exploitative and extractive, bringing about the “resource curse”, where the value of Africa’s mineral wealth is realized abroad. It will be important to resolve this, as only then can African countries exercise control and retain bargaining power in the coming supply race.