The Ethiopian government is looking for international mining firms that have the technology and the required financial resource to jointly extract tantalum and lithium minerals and produce value-added products.
The Minerals Development Enterprise SC has been mining tantalum mineral in Kenticha mine, in Borena Zone in the Oromia Regional State. The Enterprise has been exporting tantalite concentrate and earning more than 20 million dollars yearly. Following the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, countries have introduced stringent rules on tantalum and uranium export.
Thereafter, Minerals Development Enterprise has faced hurdles in exporting its tantalite concentrate product which contains uranium particles. The enterprise has the capacity to produce more than 200 tons of tantalum concentrate yearly. The Ethiopian government has instructed the enterprise to stop exporting the raw tantalum (tantalite concentrate) and produce value-added tantalum products. The newly-established Ethiopian Minerals, Petroleum and Bio-Fuel Corporation took over the Minerals Development Enterprise.
Zerihun Desta (PhD), head of the minerals division of the cooperation, told The Reporter that a feasibility study has been undertaken on the establishment of a value-added tantalum products manufacturing plant in Shakisso town. The company has identified 52.9 hectares of land suitable to build the factory and is finalizing the process to secure the plot of land. The total cost of the factory is estimated at 45-50 million USD. The factory would process the tantalum concentrate and produce tantalum value-added products such as tantalum wire, power and foil.
Tantalum is used for making aircraft engine components, mobile phones, for bone surgery and many other devices.
Zerihun, a veteran geologist and former general manager of Minerals Development Enterprise, told The Reporterthat instead of exporting the raw tantalum (tantalite concentrate), producing the value-added products would generate more foreign currency to the nation. The Enterprise has been looking for an international mining firm which has the technology and financial capability to jointly build the value-added products manufacturing plant. However, the former Privatization and Public Enterprises Supervising Agency’s repeated attempts to find a partner could not be successful due to minimal offer.
“We did not get an attractive offer. And we have started looking at the second alternative-to set up the plant by ourselves. We are looking for a loan from local and foreign banks,” Zerium said. However, he said the corporation still prefers to build the factory jointly with a foreign firm which has the knowhow and finance. “But if we cannot find the right partner, we will do it by ourselves,” he said.
The Ministry of Public Enterprises is now in the process of floating a tender to invite international firms which can jointly build the tantalum value-added products manufacturing plant.
According to Zerihun, at the Kenticha mine, lithium mineral is found in association with the tantalum ore. Lithium is used to produce vehicles and aircraft batteries. In connection with the global effort to reduce carbon emission, electric cars are being developed and supplied to the automotive market in mass. The electric cars are powered by lithium batteries and this has abruptly escalated the demand for lithium mineral.
Recently, a number of foreign firms have approached the Ministry of Public Enterprises and the Ethiopian Minerals, Petroleum and Bio-Fuel Corporation looking for the opportunity to invest in lithium production.
Zerihun said since the tantalum and lithium minerals are found in the same mine area, the corporation wants to develop both minerals. “We want to build factories that produce tantalum and lithium value-added products. So we need a partner that can invest in both projects. We are looking for a company that has the technology and finance required to set up the factories,” he said. “The factory could be one that produces both the tantalum and lithium value-added products or it can be two different factories. It depends on the technology that the potential partner would propose,” he added.
The Ministry of Public Enterprises is now preparing the bid documents. Minerals Development Enterprise has been producing tantalite concentrate since 1990. Initially the mining plant had the capacity to produce 20 tons of tantalite concentrate. After undertaking three expansion projects, the enterprise boosted the production capacity to 200 tons in 1996. The production capacity could be increased further with additional expansion project and modernizing the mode of production. Zeriun said the corporation has a plan to increase the annual production to 400 tons per annual. The tantalum ore was first discovered by Russian and Ethiopian geologists in the 1980s.