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Tantalum, Uranium – potential nuclear electricity sources for Zimbabwe

The least tantalum grade fetches US$40 per kilogram, which translates into US$5 385.40 per metric tonne while the highest grade is currently fetching US$550 per kilogram which culminates into US$163.691.55 per metric tonne.

 By Business Reporter

HARARE (Mining Index) – CLASSIFIED as a metal and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, tantalite is a heavy, hard, blue-grey or black shiny mineral found in granite rocks.

While this metal is a key ingredient in the manufacture of mobile phones, DVD players, video cameras, personal computers, video game systems, and televisions, tantalum is widely used in the aircraft industry for the production of alloys for jet engine components, chemical process equipment, camera lenses, surgical instruments, implants, missile parts and nuclear reactors.

Because tantalum is very hard, extremely corrosion resistant, easily fabricated, and a good conductor of heat and electricity, such properties make it one of the key ingredients in manufacture of nuclear reactors.

A nuclear reactor is a power plant made up of machines that can control nuclear fission to produce electricity using nuclear fuel generated from uranium ore.

Neighbouring South Africa has since 1984, constructed two nuclear reactors currently generating 5 percent of its electricity feeding into its national grid.

Namibia has a uranium mine near the port of Walvis Bay with an installed annual capacity of 50 million tonnes of ore.

In his Transitional Stabilisation Program, Finance and Economic Development minister Mthuli Ncube revealed that Zimbabwe’s electricity import bill is a whooping US$12 million per month, with Zimbabwe importing some of its electricity from South Africa.

Zimbabwean government need to be innovative on how it utilises mineral reserves bestowed upon the country. Instead of exporting raw tantalite, the metal can be beneficiated into meaningful components that can used to develop a domestic nuclear reactor to supplement the current hydro and thermal power.

While setting up a nuclear reactor is not an easy task, experts estimate a minimum of five years is required to set up a uranium mine. Considerable technical skills will then be required to start producing uranium concentrate needed for a nuclear reactor.

In 2016, the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education introduced the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEAM) program which was expected to drive industrialisation and innovation of the economy.

Zimbabwe should not forget to reap considerable technical skills from the STEAM students whose investment in science should contribute towards adoption of modern technology for power generation.

In 2005, Zimbabwe reported discovery of uranium deposits, with future plans to process the mineral in order to solve chronic electricity shortages that have been an eyesore to the country for years.

Uranium

Uranium deposits are reported to be in the Zambezi river valley, northern Zimbabwe although experts say the deposits are not large enough to support a viable mine.  Despite the uneconomical reserves of the metal, uranium is not listed by the Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe (MMCZ) among minerals found in Zimbabwe.

Further exploration for uranium need to be pursued to value how worth Zimbabwe is in terms of uranium reserves.

Uranium is a very heavy metal which has been used as an abundant source of concentrated energy.

The World Nuclear Association estimates that 11 percent of electricity worldwide is produced by nuclear power plants, with 31 countries using nuclear energy to generate up to three quarters of their electricity.

Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, South Korea, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and Ukraine  get approximately 30 percent of their electricity from nuclear reactors.

Over 75 percent of electricity in France is produced by nuclear power while the United States produces about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.

In 2015, government announced its intention to establish a tantalite buying centre that would be modelled along the same lines as Fidelity Printers and Refiners (FPR), responsible for buying tantalite from local producers.

Zimbabwe exports tantalite to China and South Africa, although some of it is often smuggled to DRC.

Tantalite ore exports fetch handsome prices on both regional and global markets. Recent prices made available to Mining Index show 13 grades of tantalum ore. The least grade of tantalum fetch US$40 per kilogramme, which translates into US$5 385.40 per metric tonne while the highest grade is currently fetching US$550 per kilogram which culminates into US$163.691.55 per metric tonne.

It is reported that in 2010, Brazil, together with other South American countries contributed 40 percent of annual global tantalite supply, followed by Australia at 21% while Central Africa produced less than 10%.

Production figures grew in 2015, with an estimated 62 percent of global tantalum supply produced in Africa, 45 percent of it from Central Africa, mainly from Rwanda and the DRC.

Zimbabwe needs to start producing tantalite so that it competes on the global scale as a leading tantalite producer.

Zimbabwe is endowed with significant and excellent deposits of tantalite. According to MMCZ, areas of verified tantalum deposits include Hurungwe, Guruve, Kariba, Mudzi, Mutoko, Shamva, Bindura, Harare, Goromonzi, Murehwa, Mt Darwin, Rushinga, Mazowe, Marondera, Gutu, Masvingo, Buhera, Bikita, Mutare, Hwange, Chivhu, Mberengwa, Chimanimani, Makoni and Insiza.

Companies involved in tantalite mining in Zimbabwe include, but not limited to Seke Tantalum Syndicate Mine and Zulu Mine project wholly owned by Premier African Minerals located in south central Zimbabwe.  To supplement conventional mining, artisanal tantalum production across the country has also been reported.

Tantalite is also commonly used in the electronics industry for the manufacturing of electronic equipment as tantalum capacitors and production of radio transmitter electron tubes which are of ultra-high frequency.

Zimbabwe imports the bulk of its electronic equipment and spare parts from China. It is high time government, through ministries of Mines and Mining Development, Ministry of ICT together with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce team up in adopting tantalite to provide opportunities for value addition and beneficiation in light to grow information, communication technology industry in Zimbabwe.

There is need to beneficiate tantalite and start making finished products for exports. Government need to establish, build and promote local reputable ICT brands that will be assembled, then exported and generate foreign currency. ENDS//

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