Europe eyes lithium white gold rush as cars go green

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Europe is seeking to expand its lithium mining and refining capacity and wean itself off imports as “white gold” becomes a vital resource in the fight against climate change.

Alongside nickel and cobalt, lithium helps store and transport electricity, making them essential for the production of electric batteries as car manufacturers move away from polluting fossil fuels.

However, Europe depends mainly on external sources for strategically important and increasingly coveted metals.

Photo: AFP

Australia is the world’s largest lithium producer, while China is home to 60% of the world’s lithium refining, turning the metal into lithium carbonate or hydroxide.

The increasingly pressing topic was on the agenda of European ministers and officials at a conference in Paris on Thursday.

It is also expected to be on the menu when EU industry ministers meet in Lens, northern France, on January 31 and February 1.

Europe “is really not on the map” when it comes to mining or processing lithium, said Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst Robert Colbourn.

“There are a lot of lithium mines in development today in Europe, or projects trying to come online, but really there is no battery-grade lithium production,” he said. declared.

The International Energy Agency has predicted that global lithium demand will be 40 times higher by 2040, with 475,000 tonnes of lithium produced last year.

However, Europe would not even cover more than 30% of its lithium, nickel and cobalt needs in 2030, according to a report submitted to the French government this week.

“Our forecast is that by 2030 Europe will likely need over 500,000 tonnes of lithium per year, which is larger than the current global market,” Colbourn said, adding that battery production fuels growing demand.

The EU recently added lithium to its list of critical metals.

With at least 38 new electric battery factories planned in Europe, the question of their supply of the necessary metals is far from being resolved.

“We need very strong measures. The idea for the 27 is not to move from a dependency on oil to a dependency on metals,” said a source at the French Ministry of Economy and Finance. “We are far too dependent on outside powers, especially China.”

Europe has no shortage of coveted raw materials, with deposits in France, Germany, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Serbia.

The French government has earmarked a budget of 1 billion euros ($1.14 billion) and issued tenders to mine or refine lithium, cobalt, nickel and iridium.

French mining company Eramet has also extracted lithium from geothermal brine in Alsace, eastern France, a technological breakthrough that could open up new explorations in the Rhine basin.

An Australian mining group said it produces carbon-neutral lithium in Germany under the Vulcan brand, which has won over auto giants Stellantis NV and Groupe Renault.

Germany is also due to host a refinery built by the Canadian group Rock Tech Lithium in 2024.

In Portugal, a lithium refinery run by Portuguese oil company Galp Energia SGPS SA and Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt AB has just been announced.

However, non-governmental organizations and scientists have warned of the environmental impact of increased mining activity.

British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto Group, which has funded mineral exploration studies in Serbia since 2004, faced protests in the Balkan nation last month as protesters demanded environmental impact reports of the project are published.

The Portuguese environmental regulator must also rule on a lithium extraction project in the north of the country.

France’s Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili said the country should “exclude nothing” about mining if it is environmentally friendly.

Europe could also increase its South American sources of lithium. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile form a “lithium triangle” which is the world’s second largest producer of this precious metal.

Eramet announced that it would open a factory in Argentina in 2024 with the Chinese company Tsingshan Holding Group Co (青山控股), Eramet’s general manager, Christel Bories, saying it would cover 15% of the lithium needs of the Europe.

Chile, which was the world’s largest producer of lithium until 2016, on Thursday granted an exploration and production concession to a Chinese company and a Chilean company.

Each company would be awarded 80,000 tons of lithium as Chile hopes to regain its leadership position on the world stage.

Other goods:

‧Gold for February delivery fell US$4.90 to US$1,816.50 an ounce, gaining 1.06% from the previous week.

‧Silver for March delivery fell US$0.24 to US$22.92 an ounce, posting a weekly gain of 2.28%, while March the copper fell US$0.13 to US$4.42 a pound, up 0.23% on the week.

Additional reports per AP

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