MBOMBELA, South Africa—A half-century-old company on the outskirts of South Africa’s Kruger National Park has found itself in a fortuitous spot as Western automakers push to move their electric-vehicle supply chains away from China.
Manganese Metal Co., based in the sleepy town of Mbombela, is the largest of just a handful of refiners of battery-grade manganese located outside China. Used mostly for making steel, manganese is increasingly replacing more expensive and harder-to-source minerals such as cobalt and nickel in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars, smartphones and laptops.
South Africa is the world’s No. 1 producer of manganese ore, but China refines more than 90% of battery-grade manganese. That dominance has stoked concerns among Western governments—including the U.S.—about their dependence on Beijing as they work to decarbonize their transport and energy systems.
Closely held MMC receives ore mined in the Kalahari Desert at its sprawling refinery. The small black stones are milled into a powder before being dissolved in acid and purified by a mix of chemicals. The purified manganese solution is then fed into tanks, where electricity is used to get it to stick onto plates. The manganese is then stripped from the plates, washed and dried before it is packaged for shipment.