Lithium, cobalt or nickel, these metals essential to the manufacture of electric batteries, which will replace automotive fuels contributing to global warming, are so sought after that Europe is preparing to open mines and refineries in an attempt to reduce its dependence on imports.
Same “if there are a lot of mining projects in Europe“there is”almost no lithium production“a level of quality adapted to batteries currently, observes for AFP Robert Colbourn, analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence in London, specializing in metals of the energy transition.”Europe is not on the lithium map, neither for mining nor for processing. “
The world’s largest producer is Australia (over 50%), and China refines over half (60%) of “l’or blanc“of the energy transition, by transforming it into lithium carbonate or hydroxide.
In total, including nickel and cobalt, a French report submitted to the government this week estimates that Europe will not exceed 30% of self-sufficiency in 2030 on these metals which make it possible to store and transport electricity.
And, while at least 38 battery factory projects are announced in Europe, the question of their metal supply is far from resolved. The subject will be on the table of European industry ministers on January 31 and February 1 in Lens during the “competitiveness, industry and internal market” council. Previously, it is on Thursday on the menu of a conference in Bercy between ministers and officials of the Commission and the European Parliament.
For metals, “very strong measures are needed. The idea for the 27 is not to go from a dependence on oil to a dependence on metals (…) we depend too much on external powers and in particular on China“, underlines a source at the French Ministry of the Economy.
Europe can count on deposits on its territory: in Serbia, Portugal, Germany, the Czech Republic, but also in France in mineral form in the Massif Central and Armorican, and in geothermal form in Alsace, according to the Bureau des geological and mining research (BRGM).
But any exploitation of mines or extraction quarries must be done while minimizing the environmental footprint, and in transparency, warn NGOs and scientists.
Several possible avenues in Europe
In December, the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, which has funded exploration studies in Jadar in Serbia since 2004, suffered protests from opponents demanding the publication of the reports on the environmental footprint.
In France, the Minister for Ecological Transition Barbara Pompili recently said that the country should not “forbid yourself nothing“in terms of extraction, provided you have the green environmental lights.
The government is dangling an envelope of one billion euros, half of public funds, and has just launched a call for projects from industrialists carrying initiatives to extract or refine lithium, cobalt, nickel or even iridium. According to specialists, there is an emergency. Lithium has just been included in the European Union’s list of critical metals. And for the International Energy Agency (IEA), global demand should increase 40-fold by 2040. “By 2030, Europe’s only lithium needs – for batteries – will exceed 500,000 tonnes per year, more than current world production“, which amounted to some 475,000 tonnes in 2021, adds Colbourn.
In Argentina, in the “ABC” lithium triangle (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile), the world’s second largest source of white gold, the French mining group Eramet announced the opening in 2024 of a plant with the Chinese Tsingshan. She should produce “15% of European lithium needs“according to its CEO Christel Bories.
Eramet has also succeeded in extracting lithium from geothermal brine in Alsace. A first which opens up industrial prospects in the Rhine ditch.
In Germany, an Australian mining group touts its lithium “zero carbon footprint” marketed under the Vulcan brand, for which a partnership has been signed with Renault and Stellantis.
On the refining side, in 2024 Germany will also host a plant built by the Canadian group Rock Tech Lithium.
In Portugal, the authorities are awaiting the verdict of the environmental authority on a refining project led by the Portuguese oil company Galp Energie and the Swedish battery manufacturer NorthVolt.