The International Zinc Association (IZA) Africa Desk has secured a ‘significant’ amount of funding to explore new zinc refining processes.

The investigation will seek to develop a chemical engineering solution that can help in meeting the demand for refined zinc in South Africa.

Industrial sponsors Vedanta South Africa and Duferco Steel Processing are participating in the research project.

IZA Africa Desk spokesperson Simon Norton said: “The funding has been secured from within South Africa.

“The sponsors are very keen to see that we can develop our own capability within South Africa to produce special high-grade refined zinc and at the same time support fundamental chemical engineering research while developing postgraduate research.”

To be conducted in the University of Cape Town’s Department of Chemical Engineering, the research will aim to develop novel refining processes that will require less external power compared to traditional pyrometallurgical processes.

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This will help in achieving economically viable production of SHG-refined zinc and reducing carbon footprint. It may also help in producing refined by-products such as silver and rare earth elements, thereby maximising ore usage.

Notably, Exxaro’s Zincor refinery on the East Rand, which closed in 2011, produced 117,000t of refined zinc for local markets.

In 2020, domestic consumption of refined zinc was around 47,000 tonnes per annum (tpa), making a significant reduction from more than 130,000tpa before 2011.

However, refined zinc supplies to South Africa plummeted recently due to the closure of four zinc refineries in Europe.

The development of new zinc refining processes may help in meeting the demand gap.

If the research succeeds, a new zinc refinery may be developed at Saldanha Bay. According to IZA, Saldanha Bay is the ideal location as it is an Industrial Development Zone (IDZ) and situated near a zinc ore export port.