01 May 2023
The first of its kind in southern Africa, African Chrome Fields has announced that its new, ground-breaking aluminothermic smelting factory in Zimbabwe will open its doors within the next two months – the result of an approximate $40 million investment for the factory alone.
The plant is equipped with proprietary state-of-the-art technology which doesn't make use of any power for the reduction of chrome ore to ferrochrome. The plant will support the company’s mineral beneficiation activities for the benefit of its South African and international clientele, who utilise its high-quality ferrochrome products to produce stainless steel.
African Chrome Fields, a privately-owned mining company, is one of the biggest chrome miners in the country, with extensive mining operations along the Great Dyke in the Midlands province. Having invested some $250 million in the country since launching operations in 2014, its new plant represents just the latest milestone in its expansion strategy.
“Our proprietary aluminothermic processes produce ultra-low carbon, high-grade ferrochrome in just a fraction of the time required by traditional methods. It takes approximately two minutes to achieve a process that usually takes in excess of seven hours with zero power in the actual process itself. Combined with the quality of our chrome ore, we will soon be producing a superior product than can be found nearly anywhere else in the world,” notes African Chrome Fields’ Managing Director, Zunaid Moti.
“The aluminothermic process is also substantially more environmentally friendly than other mining methods which draw on chemical reductants or fluxes. Put simply, this process instead makes use of aluminium and heat to produce metal concentrates – a process which is not only less electro power-intensive than conventional methods, but also avoids introducing impurities such as phosphorous and sulphur.
“This process also reduces the time needed to refine chrome to minutes rather than hours and will help to accelerate land rehabilitation times while minimising our carbon footprint.”
Moti further explains that in order to safeguard the project’s intellectual property, the group refrained from publishing information on the project which may reveal any trade secrets, preventing the group from establishing a copyright, patent, or proprietary protection.
The product’s six-year development involved a significant research, investment of time and funding, and involved additional investment from South African partners. In order to protect the intellectual property of the project, we specifically did not disclose the actual processes with a view of establishing a copyright, patent or any proprietary protection to avoid others from unfairly considering the information and potentially try to replicate it,” Moti notes.
An opportunity for chrome expansion in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is home of the world’s second largest chrome deposits after South Africa, with a major 12% share of global reserves. This chrome is not only of a higher grade than that of international counterparts, but African Chrome Fields’ reserves are also mined from an easily accessible alluvial deposit along the land’s surface.
Over the past few years, African Chrome Fields has rapidly expanded its operations to include seven chrome processing plants, as well as 19 modular wash plants – each with a capacity of approximately 50 tonnes per hour each, and a total template capacity of approximately 1,000 tonnes per hour. The company has also invested some R200 million in mineral exploration over the past six years.
Construction for the aluminothermic plant commenced as early as 2016, but experienced severe delays in the wake of the pandemic and many other challenges in the region and market. The new facility will only produce limited tonnage but the price of these low and ultra-low chromium products are substantial.
“The challenge is to ensure that all outputs are closely supervised and impurities well regulated during production since users of these products are often exceptionally particular about the specifications of the final product.
“There is one notable factory in Germany, Elektrowerk Weisweiler (EWW), which is considered the world leader in these products. Additionally, there is a factory in Russia that effectively controls the global market for now. Zimbabwe and African Chrome Fields now have the opportunity to compete with these major players,” says Moti.
Made from a blend of iron and chrome, ferrochrome is a key ingredient in the production of stainless steel – a metal experiencing increasing demand given its longer lifespan and greater resistance to oxidisation than mild steel. While it will operate the plant at 40% of its capacity at its inception, African Chrome Fields hopes to gradually increase its production to meet the rising demand for stainless steel.
“Given the country’s abundance of mineral reserves and natural resources, mining is essential to the future of Zimbabwe as a major economic contributor. By localising value-added and beneficiation activities, we hope to ensure that surrounding communities benefit from value-added activities rather than seeing these opportunities and profits funnelled overseas.
Considering that a South African company will hold a minority stake, subject to the usual South African compliances, and that this investment is Zimbabwean-based, it further establishes the project as an African innovation.
“As an African business, we are proud to be expanding our operations in Zimbabwe as proof of our commitment to playing a role in supporting its economy and developing supply chains that add value to the region,” concludes Moti.