CONRAD ONYANGO, BIRD
IN the 2018 superhero blockbuster, “Black Panther”, a fictional metal called vibranium allows the African kingdom of Wakanda to build a futuristic, high-tech civilisation.
Now, as the world switches gear to electric vehicles and designers search out lighter and lighter metal alloys, a mineral found mostly in Africa looks like it could be the “vibranium” the continent needs to catalyse a lightweight vehicle-part industry… an opportunity that could open up a multi-billion dollar industry utilising Africa’s rarest earth metal – Scandium.
The little-known scandium, among Africa’s 17 rare earth elements and with the ability to increase the strength and reduce the weight of vehicle components, is beginning to show up as the most potent alloy for most car-making metals.
“Since electric vehicles have low power engines, they use lightweight materials that drive the engine’s pulling capacity. Therefore, the increasing demand for electric vehicles provides an opportunity for the growth of the lightweight material market,” according to a MarketsandMarkets automotive lightweight material market report.
The MarketsandMarkets report projects the global automotive lightweight material market will rise to 99.3 billion dollars by 2025, growing at a compounded rate of 7.3 percent annually.
The report estimates the market for metals to be the largest by 2027, with extensive use of high-strength steel, aluminium, magnesium and titanium expected to result in a trend for electric vehicles to weigh less and less.
Ionic Rare Earths, an Australian firm with operations in Africa, affirms growing demand for high-performance aluminium alloys is accelerating the uptake of scandium.
This is generating “new opportunities for aluminium alloys, like Al-Sc (aluminum scandium) Alloys, to strengthen its position as a key material for the future,” said the firm in a scoping study on the potential of Scandium.
Electric vehicles have between 35 to 50 percent more aluminium than internal combustion engine vehicles, according to the Ionic study.
The ASX-listed firm said it has begun positioning its Makuutu rare earth project in Uganda, to take advantage of the increased recovery of the metal, through a low-cost production model.