Magnitude of manganese: A multifaceted metal

Manganese is an ancient metal that was discovered as a distinct element in 1774.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of its discovery. Yet despite its storied history, most miners in the space agree the magnitude of manganese’s importance and its multifaceted applications have long been overlooked.

Evidence indicates the first known utilisation of manganese can be dated back to the Stone Age when manganese dioxide – the inorganic compound with the formula MnO2 – was used as a pigment for cave paintings during the Upper Palaeolithic period.

It is thought the presence of manganese in the iron ore later used by the Spartans is a plausible explanation as to why their steel weapons were superior to those of their enemies.

The major breakthrough for the hard, brittle, and silvery metal occurred in circa 1856 when Sir Henry Bessemer was ironing out ways develop the steelmaking process – one which still bears his name. The Bessemer process was the first inexpensive industrial process for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron before the development of the open hearth furnace.

Despite the multitude of its applications being known for time immemorial, manganese has very much flown under the radar for the 170 years since Bessemer established his process.

Today, manganese is beginning to emerge as a battery metal. Its use however, is minimal compared to steelmaking. The market is very much driven by the production of ferro-alloys that include silico and ferro manganese that feed into the manufacturing of crude steel.

Global manganese ore supply in 2023 was 60 million tonnes – up 2% from 2022 and is equivalent to 21.24Mt of contained manganese at an average grade of 35.4% Mn. This makes it the fourth most common metal by tonnage, behind iron, aluminium, and copper.

According to the International Manganese Institute, major producers of its ore include South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Gabon, and Ghana. This ore is smelted to make manganese alloy, with China by far being the biggest producer, however its stockpiles have been declining on the back of South African exports falling some 6.7% in Q4 2023.

Moderate rise

In 2024, some 250 years since Swedish mineralogist and crystallographer Johan Gottlieb Gahn discovered manganese, ore prices could be on track for a moderate rise to about US$520 per tonne. However, the price could fall again in the fourth quarter with some analysts expecting it to drop to about $495 by year-end.

According to S&P Global Market Intelligence data, the price of 32% grade manganese ore at China’s Tianjin port in mid-February was up from a multi-year low but remained down 17% year-on-year.

Considering manganese pricing in the past year touched 5-year cyclical lows – basically to the marginal cost of production out of South Africa – a forthcoming price rise may be in line with projections of a technical rebound.

On the cards, says the World Steel Association, is 1.9% growth in global steel demand in 2024 on the back of 1.8% growth in 2023. The association forecasts steel demand will reach 1.849 billion tonnes.

Brendan Cummins, Executive Director at manganese-focused Black Canyon (ASX:BCA), tells Mining.com.au that although steel production may have plateaued with a slowdown in China, the market for manganese remains sizeable.

While production has perhaps plateaued, to put it into perspective there is between 5kg and 15kg of manganese in steel per tonne. Considering crude steel production is still in order of some 2 billion tonnes per year, at least 20 million tonnes of manganese will be required in the current market.

As Cummins explains, demand for the twelfth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust is intrinsically linked to steel production through manganese alloys.

Looking ahead, he says there should be further improvements in manganese demand and pricing especially if there are supply issues from South Africa and smelter capacity from the Ukraine continues to be affected by the ongoing war with Russia.

“The early months of 2024 appear to show a slight increase in overall China steel production with a decrease in rebar steel used in construction offset by increased demand in steel for vehicles and increased steel exports.

World Steel forecast steel demand will remain flat or increase slightly in 2024 to 1.85 billion tonnes up from 1.81 billion tonnes in 2023. Whilst China may slow down and other developed economies are subdued, emerging economies in Asia and India are showing more resilience.”

Cummins notes more recently, supply cuts from South African and Gabonese mines in response to softer market conditions will probably lead to an increase in ore pricing over the next 12 months.

“Global steel production is flat and since 95% of manganese is used in the production of steel it is unlikely that additional manganese ore is required, but new manganese supplies may displace existing suppliers.

It is not anticipated that new manganese supply is required for EV lithium-ion batteries because the market is very small compared to the steel market. That said new supply chains for manganese are required that are compliant with IRA ( Inflation Reduction Act) and EU battery regulations which are encouraging the diversification of supply chains of battery grade manganese compounds away from China to allies or sources that can demonstrate ESG and LCA credentials.

Australian based mining and downstream processors like Black Canyon will be able to take advantage of these opportunities.”

Black Canyon recently completed feedstock variability studies of the amenability of material from its projects to simple beneficiation and reductive acid leaching, as a first step towards the production of High Purity Manganese Sulphate Monohydrate (HPMSM).

testwork completed on manganese oxide samples generated HPMSM meeting battery grade specification of more than 99% HPMSM purity and within specification impurities levels.

Being a somewhat first-mover, Black Canyon is well-placed considering Australia has shipping cost advantages over African producers in particular due to its proximity to the Asian market.

Black swan events, not sitting ducks

So, what are main catalysts driving the price of manganese?

In the past, positive price movements have been triggered by ‘black swan’ events that include the Ukraine invasion by Russia where substantial smelting capacity was anticipated to be affected as the war began.

Cummins says further escalation of the war may still be a factor and increasing demand from India and other Asian emerging economies over the mid to long-term will likely also come into play.

“Government intervention in China would also be positive with potential stimulus provided for infrastructure or to renew interest in the property developments would also be positive.

In terms of supply, constraints from South Africa would probably have the largest impact of manganese pricing with issues in access to rail infrastructure or higher cost mining related to deeper ore developments being identified as potential threats.”

When asked what the catalyst would be for investors to shift their gaze onto this lesser known metal, Black Canyon’s Executive Director notes the US and Europe’s dependency on Chinese manganese sulphate could see both jurisdictions seeking alternate options in the near future.

This in turn could open up opportunities for junior explorers like Black Canyon, which is one of about 20 companies on the ASX with exposure to manganese.

Making of manganese

Black Canyon’s focus is on the underexplored Balfour Manganese Field and across the Oakover Basin in Western Australia. The prospectivity of the field is evident by the size of the geological basin, mineral resources identified to date, distance from port, potential for shallow open pit mining and a likely beneficiated Mn oxide concentrate product grading between 30 and 33% Mn.

Its portfolio is prospective for manganese mineralisation such as ‘Woodie-Woodie’ hydrothermal (high-grade Mn) and ‘Supergene Balfour’ style manganese deposits (medium-grade Mn/Fe).

The Woodie Woodie style of mineralisation is attractive from a pure grade perspective – more manganese units per tonne but also the decreasing availability of this product.

Cummins says sources of the higher grade plus 40% Mn are globally limited therefore a discovery of this grade would be very significant.

“We are targeting higher grade mineralisation at Wandanya where surface rock chips have manganese grades above 50% Mn.

The Supergene shale hosted manganese deposits are attractive from a total contained manganese content because the deposits are very large often greater then 100Mt and the ores can be beneficiated into mid-grade manganese products between 30 and 40% Mn.  

The bulk tonnage mineralisation lends itself to scale from a mining and processing perspective developing large open pits, high through put process plants and yielding significant manganese concentrate into the market.

Importantly the Supergene shale hosted mineralisation is often outcropping and has low strip ratios all of which help to reduce site base opex.”

While Black Canyon controls the largest contained manganese deposits in Western Australia, Element 25 (ASX:E25) has the 100% owned Butcherbird Manganese Project in the southern Pilbara region, just a stone’s throw from Black Canyon’s flagship asset.

On 15 March, Element 25 updated the market of its planned construction of a high-purity manganese sulphate (HPMSM) refinery in Louisiana in the US to supply domestic HPMSM to the US electric vehicle battery industry.

Element 25 Managing Director Justin Brown says the company aims to be a leading source of high quality, vertically integrated, traceable and ESG and IRA-compliant battery material to the global electric vehicle industry.

“Construction of our HPMSM facility in the USA – the first of its kind there – is a key pillar to the strategic plan which aims to position E25 as the industry leading provider of high quality ethically sourced battery-grade manganese to support global electrification efforts.”

ASX-listed Element 25 operates the Butcherbird project and is currently seeking to expand production to about 1.1Mtpa of medium-grade high silica manganese ore for use in traditional and new energy markets.

E25 is also commercialising innovative proprietary technology to produce battery-grade HPMSM for use in EV battery manufacturing.

Another ASX-listed company with exposure to this burgeoning multifaceted metal is Euro Manganese (ASX:EMN), which is also listed on the TSX-V. Earlier this month the company announced its Chvaletice Manganese Project is formally listed as under appraisal for debt financing with the European Investment Bank (EIB).

Funding from the EIB would complement a broader funding package to support the development of the company’s high-purity battery-grade manganese plant in the Czech Republic.

Company President and CEO Matthew James says the advancement of the Chvaletice Manganese Project to a formal under appraisal level signals the EIB’s commitment to supporting sustainable opportunities in the battery supply chain.

“Chvaletice remains the only sizable proven and probable reserve of manganese in the European Union and through the project, Euro Manganese will be uniquely positioned to provide a secure, traceable, and responsibly produced supply of high-purity manganese products to the European electric vehicle market.”

“… Euro Manganese will be uniquely positioned to provide a secure, traceable, and responsibly produced supply of high-purity manganese products to the European electric vehicle market

In October 2023, Chvaletice was named as a project to be supported under the inter-governmental MSP, a collection of 13 countries and the European Union, representing over 50% of global GDP. The MSP aims to catalyse public and private sector investment to build diverse, secure, and responsible critical mineral supply chains globally.

Bryah Resources (ASX:BYH) is another junior with exposure and has a JV with OM (Manganese) a wholly owned subsidiary of ASX-listed OM Holdings (ASX:OMH).

In March 2022, Bryah announced a Maiden Mineral Resource of 1.84Mt at 21% Mn. The mineral resource includes 0.65Mt at 20% Mn on granted mining lease M52/86.

During the December quarter, 2 mining leases were granted at Bryah’s manganese projects. All current JORC resources are now under mining leases. Drill results were released in November 2023 where manganese results continued to show the extension and new potential of the region.

Meanwhile, Canada-based Manganese X Energy Corp. (TSXV:MN) celebrated significant milestones in 2023, marking notable progress for the Battery Hill manganese project near Woodstock, New Brunswick.

While not listed in Australia, the company is progressing towards becoming the first publicly traded mining company in Canada and the US to commercialise high-purity EV-compliant manganese.

Martin Kepman, CEO of Manganese X, says as the company navigates the dynamic landscape of EV investments, the Canadian government’s ambitious transition plan sets a compelling stage.

“The infusion of $35 billion into significant EV battery production facilities further underscores the industry’s momentum. Research firm BloombergNEF’s recognition of manganese’s pivotal role in EV battery cathode chemistries affirms our strategic focus.

Looking ahead, the anticipated shortage of high-purity manganese by 2030 places Manganese X at the forefront.

We stand poised to address this challenge, positioning ourselves as a major supplier to the burgeoning North American EV and energy storage supply chain. This aligns seamlessly with our commitment to drive innovation and contribute significantly to the sustainable evolution of the electric vehicle sector.”

Milestones and magnitude

Manganese is an ancient metal discovered as a distinct element in 1774. As outlined, society has been harnessing the monumental and multifaceted power of manganese for time immemorial. And for 175 years its significance in steelmaking in particular has been well-known.

Despite this storied history, understanding and harnessing its applications in the important EV and battery markets remains very much in its infancy.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been touting the potential of manganese-based batteries for some time. Demand for the metal from the battery sector is projected to increase ninefold by 2030, according to BloombergNEF.

If vehicle manufacturers are to increase the volume production of EVs in the coming years, a shift to high manganese cathodes could be on the horizon.

This all then poses some questions. For one, is this overlooked multifaceted metal the ‘dark horse’ commodity on the cusp of a revolutionary boom? And if it is the case, which companies will be at the forefront to rein in the opportunities as they arise?

Could the year 2024 – the 250th anniversary of its discovery – be the inflection point for which the magnitude of its economic (and environmental) importance is finally unlocked?

As one investment banker following the space tells Mining.com.au, it’s more likely going to be a slow turn rather than a quick uptick … “but only time will tell”.

Write to Adam Orlando at Mining.com.au

Images: Black Canyon & Element 25
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Written By Adam Orlando
Mining.com.au Editor-in-Chief Adam Orlando has more than 20 years’ experience in the media having held senior roles at various publications, including as Asia-Pacific Sector Head (Mining) at global newswire Acuris (formerly Mergermarket). Orlando has worked in newsrooms around the world including Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and Sydney.