• Search
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram

The global race for critical resources

Nick Gardiner discusses energy metals and geopolitics

Words by Nick Gardiner
30 May 2024
Tin-bearing rock cutting through county rock in the Uis district, Namibia

In June 2023, my colleagues and I rolled up to the front gates of a lithium mine near Dorowa in Eastern Zimbabwe. Our vehicles were quickly surrounded by at least 50 local men who were looking for work and had assumed that we were in some way associated with the Chinese-owned mine – of course we weren’t. I chatted to a few of the men and explained that we were just passing through. In fact, we were scoping out the mine for ourselves. We left our vehicles on foot to make a foray along the high fence boundary and assess the size of the operation.

Lithium is the current poster-child for the so-called critical metals. Critical metals (minerals) are broadly defined as those commodities with growing economic and/or industrial importance, but with insecure or volatile supply. Zimbabwe probably has Africa’s biggest lithium resources. In December 2022, the country announced a ban on the export of unrefined lithium ore to deter illegal mining, and to keep processing, and hence jobs and revenue, in the country. In 2023, lithium became Zimbabwe’s third biggest export after gold and Platinum Group Elements (PGEs; Chingono, 2023), making the country Africa’s biggest lithium producer.

The mine we visited on that day boasted a new processing plant, and our assessment was that it was much too big in scale to be solely built for the locally mined pegmatite (pegmatites are the main hard-rock source of lithium, see Fig. 1 and box ‘Lithium formation’). The mine is sited close to a main road that goes via the border town of Mutare into Mozambique and thence onto the port of Beira, enabling raw materials produced in landlocked Zimbabwe to be exported, typically to China. As such, the operation is strategically sited to process raw lithium ore from other mining projects within Zimbabwe prior to export.

Figure 1: Lithium production from 1990 until 2022 by deposit type, and lithium-concentrate price.

Figure 1: Lithium production from 1990 until 2022 by deposit type, and lithium-concentrate price.
(Figure reproduced from Gardiner et al. (2024) Geoenergy 2(1); https://doi.org/10.1144/geoenergy2023-0 and originally adapted from Mudd (2021) Sustainability 13(19), 10855; https://doi.org/10.3390/su131910855, both published open access under CC BY Creative Commons Licence.)

While many African nations have long asserted varying degrees of control over their natural resources, mainly via mining codes, licences, and royalty structures, countries such as Zimbabwe are now taking the next steps to realising the full potential of their critical resources, and embarking on or encouraging development of these deposits. Chinese investors, in particular, have been quick to work with African partners on this development. In Zimbabwe, over the past few years, Chinese companies have spent over US$1billion buying lithium projects (Gbadamosi, 2023), including the major pegmatite deposits of Arcadia and Bikita. In contrast, there has been relatively little Western investment – not least due to various sanctions placed on the country by the EU, UK, and US from the 2000s onwards (Dendere, 2022). The emergence of China as an economic competitor, and its readiness to use metals supply as an economic weapon, means the pressure is now on Western governments to secure their own critical metals supply in the global race for resources.

BOX | Lithium formation

Lithium deposits fall into three main categories: (1) salar deposits formed from lithium-bearing groundwater brines; (2) hard-rock deposits, mainly lithium-rich pegmatites; and (3) clay-rich sedimentary deposits (Bowell et al. 2020). The latter deposit type has yet to be economically proven at an industrial scale and, while lithium derived from salars (found mainly in South America) remains important, since 2018, global supply of lithium has increasingly come from pegmatites (Fig. 1).

Pegmatites – such as those found in Zimbabwe – are coarse-grained igneous rocks that are geologically enigmatic. These minor granitic intrusions, perhaps only tens to hundreds of metres in length, can be variably enriched in economic metals such as lithium, tin, tantalum, caesium, and the rare earth elements. They can be complexly zoned in terms of their mineralogy and hence metal endowment, and their small size and complexity can lead to extraction challenges in terms of tricky economics of scale and grade control, and a short mine life. However, they can often form in swarms, with tens to upwards of a hundred or more intrusions clustered together, and thus for prospectors may represent classic ‘elephant’ country – find one economic lithium pegmatite and the hope is others are nearby.

However, there remains a fundamental debate as to whether enriched pegmatites reflect minor melt extraction from a parental granite – and thus form from late-stage magmatic processes – or whether their genesis is via low-degree partial melting of country rocks, typically clay-rich metasediments (e.g. Shaw et al., 2022; Koopmans et al., 2024). Both are plausible petrological mechanisms to produce minor, enriched melts. Further, many pegmatite fields are not associated with any obvious parental granite or, where granites do appear in spatial association, the granites are often somewhat older than the pegmatites. Thus debate around the formation mechanisms continues, and this remains an active area of research with a number of groups in the UK and beyond.

Tin-bearing pegmatite cutting through county rock in the Uis district, Namibia (with person for scale). © Nick Gardiner

Supply volatility

Arguably the biggest technological barrier to the decarbonisation of global energy is the supply of key energy metals, including lithium, copper, nickel, and cobalt. Lithium, often referred to as ‘white gold’, is the commodity considered among the most crucial for the energy transition, as well as one of the most critical of the battery metals.

A critical mineral or metal is variably defined as that which has economic and industrial importance resulting in growing demand, but which suffers from insecure supply chains, often hindered by geopolitical interests. A key societal goal is to reduce the risks associated with the supply of critical metals, which is achieved by freeing bottlenecks in their supply chains. This could be accomplished, for example, by: increasing mine supply across a wider range of mining jurisdictions; improving processing technology; and improving licence-to-mine success. From a geoscientific perspective, this means building better metallogenic models of deposit formation at a range of scales to aid exploration, understanding mineralogy for metallurgical advances, and in environmental monitoring. (Since geologists are often the first boots-on-the-ground, we also need to understand and act on environmental, social and governance considerations as well, which are often the biggest barriers to mine project success.)

Chinese companies have been assiduously acquiring lithium projects, although not necessarily harmoniously

A notable feature of many critical metals such as lithium is their small-scale of production. For example, annual mined tonnages of lithium, tungsten, and tin are approximately 1% of that for copper. Such small scale means the supply pipeline of these metals can be rapidly transformed for the better or worse with one new mine coming onstream, or one country blocking exports; or that a country can become a significant player in that commodity through the development of one or two major mines. These vulnerabilities are true of the entire supply chain, including the downstream processing and refining stages. Thus, these commodities tend to acutely suffer from price and supply volatility, which makes them risky investments and arguably hinders strategic investment, all of which ensures they continue to be classified as critical (Gardiner et al., 2024; see box ‘Metal criticality’).

BOX | Metal criticality

Metal ‘criticality’ is a sliding scale and depends on a number of factors. Criticality is also of key importance when considering political and investment risks. In our recent research (Gardiner et al., 2024), we explore the concept of lithium criticality, by gazing a decade forward to assess various scenarios under which lithium might become either uncritical – thereby trending towards being a ‘normal’ metal – or indeed become even more supply constrained and hence über-critical, possibly leading to substitution efforts towards alternative technologies and hence alternative metals. Our scenarios include: business as usual, whereby pegmatites and brines continue to be the principal sources of lithium; lithium-rich clays coming onstream, which would significantly improve the tonnage and geographic spread of lithium supply; and a black swan event, which by its very nature is an unpredictable event, but could include a war, or critical mineral supply being used as an economic weapon (such as the 2023 example of China placing export restrictions on the minor metals gallium and germanium, which are used in high-end graphic microchips and semiconductors; Trench & Sykes, 2023).

Fundamentally, our work highlights that a key issue with small-scale critical metals such as lithium is that there is often a timing mismatch between relatively slow-responding supply versus dynamic changes in demand, which leads to price and supply volatility and can make the economics around mine projects fragile.

Geological serendipity

It is perhaps a serendipitous feature of geology, coupled with historical mining activities and past and present geopolitics, that much of the metal resources on which the energy transition depends are now being explored for and extracted from the Global South, in particular the African continent.

In June 2023, Namibia followed Zimbabwe’s lead in banning the export of unprocessed critical metals including lithium. Namibia is another mining jurisdiction that is exceptionally endowed in a variety of pegmatite-hosted mineral resources, traditionally mined for uranium, tin, and tantalum, but which is now a key region for lithium prospecting. As for Zimbabwe, in Namibia, Chinese companies have been assiduously acquiring lithium projects, although not necessarily harmoniously. Things came to a head in October 2023 when the Namibian government ordered their police to stop the Chinese-owned company Xinfeng Investments, the owner of the Kohero lithium mine which is located about 250 km northwest of the capital Windhoek, from transporting or exporting any lithium ore (Nyaungwa, 2023) by blocking and turning back trucks that were heading towards the port of Walvis Bay. This was the latest scuffle in an ongoing dispute between the government and Xinfeng Investments, after earlier allegations of illegal exportations of lithium ore and using small-scale mining permits to develop their deposit (denied by the miner).

Fieldwork in central Zimbabwe. © Nick Gardiner

Strong governance frameworks for natural resources are already in place in many African nations. However, these case studies highlight that nations such as Zimbabwe and Namibia are now realising the full benefits and potential of their critical mineral resources, and are taking more assertive steps to maximise the economic and social benefits associated with mining and downstream processing – that is, efforts to domicile more of the value chain. Such efforts might eventually include the need for African countries to work together and to build continent-wide infrastructure, such as more strategically sited refining plants and smelters, and better roads and transportation links to ports.

The story of lithium pegmatites in Zimbabwe and Namibia is an exemplar of the global race for resources. Zimbabwe has the geological potential to be a major producer of lithium, with commensurate benefits for its societal and technological development. However, to reap such benefits requires not only good infrastructure but also good governance (for a discussion on how an abundance of resources can go very wrong in Africa, see Burgis, 2015). There have been, for example, reports of Zimbabwe’s raw lithium export ban being circumvented by military-linked companies (Deutsche Welle, 2023). Further, the recent collapse in lithium prices – from a high of US$80,000/MT in December 2022 to ca. US$20,000/MT towards the end of last year – only serves to underline that lithium projects can be risky investments vulnerable to unfavourable economic shifts, which compounds the jurisdiction risks operating in countries like Zimbabwe. Until recently, many pegmatite projects were brownfield sites, that is, existing tin or caesium mines that were being re-evaluated for their lithium potential. However there are signs that despite at times challenging headwinds, the industry is now moving into a greenfields exploration phase globally, with the aim of new mine development specifically for lithium production – both in places like Western Australia (Phelps-Barber et al., 2022), but also in countries like Zimbabwe and Namibia and beyond.

Hunting for outcrops, Bullawayo region, Zimbabwe. © Nick Gardiner

Collective effort

Belated recognition in many Western governments and transnational organisations of the importance of securing medium- to long-term supply of a range of metals, for the energy transition in particular, means that critical metals have rapidly risen up policymakers’ agendas. The UK, EU, US, Canada, and Australia have recently released or updated their versions of critical mineral strategies and/or watchlists, and are now seeking alliances and agreements with receptive countries, agreements that aspire to underpin metal supply security, while also investing in research projects aimed at identifying and exploiting critical mineral resources closer to home (e.g. Müller et al., 2023), and/or improving recycling approaches. However, given the strategic investments in mining, processing, and refining already made by China, Western nations are arguably at least a decade behind. All of this piles pressure on Western nations and companies to develop their own robust supply chains.

Colleagues and I have current research projects in both Zimbabwe and Namibia and we hope our collective academic efforts, alongside those of other researchers in the UK and internationally, will help us better understand the geological evolution and processes leading to mineralised granites and pegmatites, to ultimately help exploration companies target them. It is impossible to work in countries such as Namibia and Zimbabwe and not realise the potential of natural resources to underpin their development, be that in revenue; in education, training, and jobs; and in environmental protection. Despite the myriad of challenges associated with the development of any mine, there is huge potential for lithium in many African countries (Goodenough et al., 2021). The hope is that any challenges can be overcome and the countries themselves can better prosper from their natural resources.



Senior Lecturer, University of St Andrews and outgoing Chair of the Society’s Energy Transition Theme. A geologist who has worked both in academia and in global commodities, and who has spent the past decade looking at critical resources in developing countries.

Further reading

Related articles