IDC to launch battery production study later this year, starts search for lithium

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An array of 88 lithium-ion batteries sit in the rear of a hybrid
A prefeasibility study to determine the viability of manufacturing large cell lithium-ion batteries in South Africa will start in the second half of the year, says Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) strategic high-impact projects senior project manager Retief Bruwer.

The study will serve to determine whether it makes economic sense for a partnership consisting of South African electrical vehicle manufacturer Optimal Energy, which is planning mass production of its Joule electric vehicle by 2012, and the Energy Innovation Group, of South Korea, which manufactures lithium-ion batteries, as well as the IDC to establish such a manufacturing plant in South Africa.

The project is driven by the IDC.

“We have already finished the scoping study,” notes Bruwer.

Large-cell lithium-ion batteries are used in electric vehicles, as well as in stationary power storage applications.

“Batteries produced at such a plant will be used in the Joule electric vehicle,” says Bruwer. “However, it should not be limited to the Joule. It could also serve other vehicle manufacturers.”

The plant’s likely production capacity is 20-million cells a year, but this will be verified by the study.

Each Joule car will use about 400 cells.

Bruwer says the prefeasibility study will also unpack the variety of stationery power-generation applications the batteries can be used for.

Lithium-ion batteries are used to around 80% of their capacity in automotive applications, after which they could find a second life in stationary applications, or be recycled.

Should the prefeasibility study yield a positive result, the project participants will move on to a bankable feasibility study, says Bruwer.

The IDC is an investor in Optimal Energy, and plans to be a shareholder in the battery production facility, should the project come to fruition.

Bruwer says the IDC views the project as a significant economic opportunity, not only to establish a truly South African vehicle brand, but also to position the country in this rapidly developing automotive segment. Also, should battery production be established in South Africa, it will open up a completely new segment in the automotive industry for local manufacturers, while also creating opportunities in a number of spin-off sectors.

“We are talking batteries, power electronics, IT systems, and electric drive-motors,” explains Bruwer.

He adds that the IDC is planning a parallel study to determine the existence of economically viable lithium and other related mineral resources in the ground in South Africa and Africa.

“We will be looking at anybody who does any value-add to lithium or other minerals that form part of the lithium-ion battery value chain, including the production of other ingredients such as electrolytes and anode materials.”
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