Critical Minerals Alliances 2022 - September 12, 2022
While not as talked about as other battery ingredients such as cobalt, lithium, and nickel, manganese is an important stabilizing ingredient in the cathodes of the nickel-manganese-cobalt lithium-ion batteries widely used in electric vehicles and electronics.
"Their composition helps determine how long you can talk on the phone, how far you can drive an electric car, how fast a battery can recharge and how much energy you can store from your solar panels," Umicore, a global materials technology and recycling group, wrote on NMC cathode material. "The manganese in the cathode material has an important impact on the safety of the battery cells and safety is a main priority when it comes to batteries that power electric cars and electric devices."
Despite manganese's importance to the lithium-ion batteries needed to power the EV revolution and store renewable energy, there are currently no mines producing this critical battery metal in the United States or Canada. As a result, North American manufacturers must rely on imports from Gabon, South Africa, Australia, Georgia, and other countries for their manganese needs.
Two companies, however, are looking to fill the growing demand for manganese from North American sources – one from an old iron mine in New Brunswick and the other from a strategic stockpile in the Arizona desert.
While lithium-ion batteries are powering enormous new demand for manganese, steel and other alloys remain the dominant use for this critical metal.
According to the United States Geological Survey, an estimated 640 metric tons of manganese were used for steelmaking, batteries, and other applications in the U.S. during 2021.
"Most ore consumption was related to steel production, either directly in pig iron manufacture or indirectly through upgrading the ore to ferroalloys," the USGS inked in its Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022 report. "Additional quantities of ore were used for nonmetallurgical purposes such as in the production of animal feed, brick colorant, dry cell batteries, and fertilizers."
Globally, there were 20,000 metric tons of manganese mined last year – South Africa, Gabon, and China accounted for roughly 78% of this total.
This puts manganese slightly into oversupply, which is why it has not captured headline attention. This abundance also makes it a perfect metal to substitute for other lithium battery cathode metals with tighter supply.
Tesla and VW are among the companies that are considering more manganese-rich recipes to ensure there are enough batteries to meet the ambitious EV sales targets.
"It is relatively straightforward to do a cathode that's two-third nickel and one-third manganese, which will allow us to make 50% more cell volume with the same amount of nickel," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during the company's Battery Day 2020 event.
He reiterated interest in manganese as an abundant material that would be leaned on for increased battery production during the opening of Tesla Gigafactory Berlin earlier this year.
"I think there's an interesting potential for manganese," he said in response to a question about graphene batteries.
"We need tens, maybe hundreds of millions of tons, ultimately. So, the materials used to produce these batteries need to be common materials, or you can't scale," he went on to explain about the volume of raw materials it will take to reach Tesla's EV production goals.
Volkswagen is also investigating high-manganese cells because they offer "the optimum cost-benefit ratio."
While these high-manganese cells currently have some drawbacks in terms of energy density, some consider them slightly better than lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, which are currently being put into shorter-range vehicles. Using less expensive and more plentiful materials is bringing down the costs of daily commuters, saving nickel for higher-end, longer-range vehicles.
Whether high-manganese batteries catch hold or cells with just 10% manganese in the cathode, such as the popular NMC-811 battery, the sheer volume of EVs expected to hit global highways over the next decade is going to significantly push the demand for manganese higher.
In a move to shorten North American lithium battery supply chains, Manganese X Energy Corp. is rapidly advancing plans to develop a manganese mine at its aptly named Battery Hill project in New Brunswick, Canada.
In May, the company published a preliminary economic assessment that outlines a financially robust mine at Battery Hill that would average 68,000 metric tons of battery-grade, high-purity manganese sulfate monohydrate (HPMSM) annually for 47 years.
This long-lived operation is based on 35.1 million metric tons of measured and indicated resources averaging 6.24% manganese and 10.94% iron; plus 27.7 million metric tons of inferred resource averaging 6.46% manganese and 10.73% iron.
Given the robust economics – an after-tax net present value (10% discount) of US$486 million and 25% internal rate of return – a mine and processing facility at Battery Hill is expected to pay back the US$350 million capital costs for its development in just 2.8 years.
"The PEA represents the most significant milestone to date for Manganese X and makes us the forerunner of becoming the first publicly traded company in Canada and the US to commercialize high-purity electric vehicle quality compliant manganese," said Manganese X Energy CEO Martin Kepman.
Battery Hill also happens to be road accessible and only about eight miles east of the Maine border, which offers affordable access to manufacturers in both the United States and Canada that need this metal to stabilize the structure of the lithium-ion batteries powering EVs and a plethora of cordless electronics.
Traditionally, selenium has been used to create battery-grade manganese. This additive is regarded as a negative mark on the environment and the quality of the manganese. This problem has been addressed by Manganese X, which has worked with Kemetco Research Inc. to develop a process for producing battery-grade manganese without introducing selenium.
"Thanks to our proprietary extraction process, we can develop a superior quality manganese product by eliminating selenium, considered a toxic pollutant and yet utilized by some of the HPMSM producers worldwide to reduce their costs of production," Kepman added.
The company says it is in discussions with several potential strategic partners looking to source the high-purity manganese products that could be produced at Battery Hill.
"We have received great feedback after publishing our strong PEA," said Kepman. "Currently, there is zero manganese mining in Canada and the US. We aim to change this, and we are working diligently to facilitate a new North American production."
Because Battery Hill is the site of a former iron mine and more recent bench-scale development programs aimed at establishing a manganese operation there, Manganese X enjoys a considerable head start on delivering battery-grade manganese to the North American market.
Due to the previous developments, the site already has much of the needed infrastructure in place – security and administration buildings; crushing facility; process plant; sulfuric acid plant; truck shop and maintenance facilities; waste rock storage facilities; run-of-mine mill feed stockpile; filtered residue storage area; sediment ponds; power, water, and fuel supply.
Manganese X is having a pilot plant developed that will demonstrate its proprietary process under near commercial-scale operating conditions, using a modular design that can be scaled up to help meet the expected rapid rise in market demands for high-quality, battery-grade manganese.
"At the current rate of EV production, a significant manganese deficit is being forecasted," said Kepman. "Our Battery Hill manganese property and its corresponding long economic life cycle will help to mitigate this deficit down the road."
In the U.S., RecycLiCo Battery Materials Inc. (formerly American Manganese) is investigating the potential of using its patented technology developed for the recycling of lithium-ion batteries to produce electrolytic manganese metal (EMM), an important alloy in stainless steel and a precursor to battery-grade manganese, from a strategic stockpile of manganese ore in the desert near Wenden, Arizona.
Purchased by the U.S. government in the 1950s and 1960s, the Wenden Stockpile contains roughly 322,000 metric tons of material. However, this potential domestic source of manganese has been languishing in the desert for the past six decades due to the need for a specialized process to efficiently transform the low-grade ore into useful forms of advanced manganese material.
Toward the end of 2020, the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency awarded RecycLiCo a grant to investigate the viability of using its patented process to produce electrolytic manganese metal from the stockpile.
After nearly a year of sampling and bench-scale testing, RecycLiCo successfully produced electrolytic manganese metal from the material.
Toward the end of 2021, the company submitted its final report to the Defense Logistics Agency, signifying the completion of the Wenden Stockpile Reclamation and Advanced Material Processing project.
"The patented American Manganese process represents a significant opportunity for producing electrolytic manganese metal, electrolytic manganese dioxide, and potentially battery-grade manganese sulfate, using as feedstock the 350,000 short dry tons of National Defense Stockpile material grading about 22% manganese located just outside Wenden, Arizona," according to the report.
Congressman Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, says these findings are good news for the residents of Wenden and the American critical mineral supply chain.
"At each step in the process American Manganese has been open and transparent on their work and is presenting a solution to transform the unwanted stockpile of low-grade material, long ago paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, into modern National Defense Stockpile material," said Gosar. "The U.S. remains 100% dependent on foreign EMM and we simply cannot remain dependent on foreign supply when electrolytic manganese metal is a designated strategic defense mineral. Advancing this project is a strong first step towards securing a durable American source of supply."
Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees the U.S. National Defense Stockpile, has electrolytic manganese metal listed on its 2022 stockpile acquisitions list.