EU Looking for Ways to Boost Lithium Supply

As Europe tries to switch to cleaner energy sources, battery storage is expected to play a key role in the effort to ramp up renewable energy operations. And lithium is a crucial raw material in batteries. While both the EU and the members states scramble to increase lithium supplies, not much of the white metal can be found in Europe’s soil. That forces the bloc to turn to lithium-rich countries. Lithium can be used in batteries for a variety of electronics. It is also the driving source for electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy battery storage. The EU’s ambition to wean off combustion engine cars by 2035 makes supply security of battery metals, including lithium, even more urgent.

It is estimated that the production of battery raw materials graphite, cobalt and lithium will need a five fold increase over the next decades to achieve climate targets. The EU will require 18 times more lithium than it currently uses by 2030, and 60 times more by 2050 to meet net-zero aims. The challenge to ramp up supplies not only comes from geographical logistics, but also from an opposition to lithium mining from local communities and environmentalists.

In 2021, Portuguese Environment Minister Fernandes said during a conference that “Green mining must also be challenging such sentiments through the involvement of the local population in understanding the mutual benefits these projects could bring.” Head of the European Commission’s raw materials unit Handley supported Fernandes, stating that it was vital to demonstrate to the public that mining would be done “the right way, in full compliance with regulations”. He added, “Mining in the past was a very dirty operation…. It is becoming highly technological these days.”

There was some good news for Europe’s lithium industry last week as French miner Imerys announced its plans to develop a major lithium extraction project.  The proposed Emili Project is expected to be located in the centre of France, with hopes to deliver around 34,000 metric tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually from 2028. This level of production would provide enough lithium to power 700,000 EV batteries a year.

Last month, European Commission President von der Leyen said she believed lithium and rare earths would soon be more important than oil and gas. She also highlighted China’s dominance in supply chains of rare earths and lithium, saying China currently manages around 90% of the rare earths industry. This is concerning for the European region that is attempting to reduce its dependence on Chinese energy and products.

Imerys is currently completing a ‘technical scoping study’ to assess the viability of the selected site for lithium mining. The company expects the construction of the project to cost around $980 million. Imerys released a statement explaining, “Upon successful completion, the project would contribute to the French and European Union’s energy transition ambitions.” It added, “It would also increase Europe’s industrial sovereignty at a time when car and battery manufacturers are heavily dependent on imported lithium, which is a key element in the energy transition.”

If the EU is able to boost lithium production, it will also ease price pressures. Lithium prices soared seven-fold from May 2021 to May 2022, due to growing battery demand. But while shifting lithium production away from lithium-rich countries to Europe may decrease reliance on other powers and provide greater energy security, it could also be costly. Australia, China and lithium triangle countries (Chile, Argentina and Bolivia) have competitive advantages of lower labor, energy and reagent costs. Meanwhile, to date, domestic production of lithium concentrates in Europe is insignificant in contrast to global output, at about 110 tonnes of lithium content.

Security of critical minerals is becoming as significant as oil and gas, as countries around the world race to develop renewable energy and battery storage projects, as well as shifting away from combustion engine vehicles to EVs. But as this demand rises, so too will the need for lithium mining. Although regional developments like the Emili Project in France will help boost the region’s lithium supply, a lack of lithium reserves in Europe could make the continent once again reliant on others for its energy security.

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