6 November, 2022

Imerys to open French lithium mine

France’s Imerys announced plans on Monday to become the leading supplier of lithium in Europe through a mining project in central France as a push to make electric vehicles widely available spurs a “white gold” rush for the mineral.

Imerys said results of surveys carried out at its Beauvoir mine in the Allier department in central France allow it to produce 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide for at least 25 years from 2028 to supply around 700,000 electric cars.

The announcement comes as European miners are rushing to launch domestic production of the raw material, a crucial component for electric vehicle production, currently sourced almost entirely from outside the bloc.

Electric cars are a key plank of European Union plans to cut emissions, and the bloc is trying to reduce reliance on battery supplies from Asia through projects with European-based carmakers and battery specialists.

Touring the Paris Motor Show last week, French President Emmanuel Macron told the financial daily Les Echos that his administration wanted to make electric vehicles “accessible to everyone”.

Macron then proceeded to announce a series of measures to enable households to acquire electric vehicles.

With the EU seeking to ban the sale of combustion engine vehicles from 2035, France is trying to gradually phase out fossil-fuel cars.

While the move is seen as an essential step on the road to energy transition, it also poses a serious problem: it will require massive quantities of metals needed to manufacture batteries, especially lithium.

Almost all the critical minerals currently come from outside the continent, with China dominating the global supply chain. The world’s main lithium suppliers also include Australia and Argentina.

Since 2015, production volumes of lithium – also known as “white gold” – have tripled worldwide, reaching 100,000 tonnes per year by 2021, according to the International Energy Agency.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last month that “lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas”, adding that the bloc’s demand for rare earths alone will increase fivefold by 2030.

Various miners are exploring domestic European lithium projects including in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Imery’s French rival Eramet is exploring a project in the Alsace region.

The French project is estimated to involve construction capex of around 1 billion euros, Imerys said, adding that cash cost of the lithium project is estimated to be around 7-9 euros per kilo.

The Beauvoir site has been producing kaolin for ceramics since the late 19th century.

In Serbia, a domestic mining project has been facing stiff opposition from the local population.