Explained: The Prospects of Lithium Mining in Africa

By Macie King

Reynolds Sandbox
The Reynolds Sandbox
3 min readMar 13


With more and more electric cars being produced and their massive batteries needing lithium, lithium mines are in increasingly high demand. Africa’s abundance of natural lithium reserves puts the continent in the spotlight, with both economic positives looming as well as environmental hazards.

What is lithium and why do electric car batteries use it?

Lithium is a chemical element (Li) that’s a soft silvery alkali metal. It is not found freely, instead it’s only found in other compounds, typically ionic compounds. Lithium is the lightest and least dense metal making it easier to charge and carry in devices. Lithium also has the highest charge-to-weight ratio. Other batteries that use elements such as lead are heavy, expensive, and take too long to charge. Because of this, lithium batteries are the safest and most efficient batteries for cars.

How is lithium extracted?

Lithium is currently extracted from two sources: brines and hard rock. Brine is a high concentration of salt in water. To extract lithium from brine, salt water is pumped to the surface into evaporation pools. As the water evaporates, brine is left with lithium concentrate. Ca(OH)2 is added into the brine to remove any unwanted elements and then it is pumped to a facility in order to extract the metal.

Hard rock extraction takes place from using other minerals such as spodumene, lepidolite, petalite, amblygonite, and eucryptite. Once the minerals are mined, these are crushed and then heated. After a cooling period, the minerals are milled and heated again with sulfuric acid. Lastly, hydrogen in the sulfuric acid is replaced with lithium ions to produce lithium sulfate. This process takes significantly more energy than brine extraction does.

Where in Africa are potential lithium mines located?

There are four mines in Zimbabwe that have the ability to produce lithium. Bikita pegmatite is located in southeast Zimbabwe and started mining for lithium in the 1940s after the discovery of tin. Bikita currently produces lithium for only ceramic and glass products, not for batteries. The Arcadia project, close to Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is currently developing their lithium mine and should begin full-time production in 2023. Kamativi pegmatite in northwest Zimbabwe is being examined for a potential hard rock lithium mine. And lastly Zulu pegmatite, close to Bulawayo, is being explored by Premier African Minerals for lithium mining.

Karibib is a lithium project in Namibia that will mainly produce lepidolite, a lithium bearing compound. Uis Tin Mine in Namibia is primarily used for tin production but it is expected to produce lithium in the future.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Manono-Kitotolo pegmatites will produce lithium to produce spodumene concentrate, a mineral with high lithium content, and tin. Goulamina and Bougouni in southern Mali both plan to mine lithium for spodumene concentrate production. Lastly, the Ewoyaa project in southern Ghana is currently being explored for lithium production.

What are the possible environmental impacts?

Lithium extraction from brines requires substantial amounts of water. Looking to South America, in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining took over half of their water supply. This poses a great risk for farmers as they heavily rely on water for food production.

Toxic waste is another risk of lithium mining. In 2016, the Ganzizhou Rongda lithium mine leaked toxic waste causing fish, cows, and yaks to die from consuming the contaminated water. An increase in lithium mines means an increase in potential for water to be contaminated and cause health risks.

Lithium mining damages soil and contaminates air. In Chile, the surrounding areas of the mine are filled with piles of salt and canals of contaminated water.

Will the economic benefits outweigh the environmental degradation? That remains to be seen, but if the history of extraction is studied, it’s one that rarely benefits areas where the mines are located.

Explainer Journalism by Macie King shared with Reynolds Sandbox



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