While waiting for research on new materials and technologies, such as sodium-ion or other new generations, such as those developed at CIC energiGUNE, to enable the industry to generate viable alternatives, lithium is undoubtedly the key element for batteries. Its impact is decisive for the development of electromobility and to respond to the growing demand for renewable energy storage.
The enormous challenge facing Europe at the moment is its almost total dependence on imports of this raw material. At present, according to data from the US Geological Survey on Mineral Raw Materials, lithium mined in the European Union represents only 1% of the world´s lithium mining. If we take into account, for example, that Europe produces a quarter of the total volume of electric vehicles in the world, we can get an accurate idea of the scale of the challenge.
Therefore, it seems realistic and reasonable to carry out an analysis of the possibilities of obtaining lithium on European soil. Specifically in cases such as Spain, which has sufficient potential to occupy a relevant space in the field of extraction, with promising deposits, a great mining experience and tradition, and an excellent research ecosystem that guarantees access to the necessary technology. All this, however, without losing sight of a major challenge: the environmental challenge.
Spain´s strengths and opportunities
The first thing we can highlight when pointing out Spain as a potential lithium extractor is the importance of its reserves. At European level, the largest lithium reserves are found in the Czech Republic (31%), Serbia (27%) and Ukraine (15%). This is followed by Spain with 13%, and the other countries have very limited reserves (France 4% and Germany 3%, according to Blandine Gourcerol´s study). In other words, in the context of the European Union, we are talking about the second reference territory for the development of an industry of its own.
These reserves are located mainly in Castilla y León, Galicia, Extremadura and Andalusia, specifically in Cadiz, where a large lithium reserve, considered one of the largest in Europe, has been identified in the San José del Valle mine.
Another outstanding case is Extremadura, where other significant lithium deposits are found, such as San José de Valdeflores and Las Navas -both in Cáceres-; as well as Galicia, with the Alberta deposit. These deposits have not yet been fully exploited, but represent a considerable potential for lithium extraction in the future.
The mere existence of these deposits is a key factor for the positioning of Spain as a lithium extractor, but to this we must add its solid mining infrastructure and its long tradition in the extraction of minerals. The Spanish mining industry has been internationally recognized for its experience in the exploitation of various resources, such as iron, coal and precious metals. And it is precisely this mining experience that provides a solid basis for expansion into lithium mining.
In addition, we must not forget the importance of the existing communication infrastructures, with interconnected road networks, ports and railways that facilitate the transport and distribution of minerals and guarantee an efficient extraction and export process.
In addition, a third element to be taken into account is the research and development of associated technologies. Scientific ecosystems such as those contributed to the Spanish and European regions and territories like the Basque Country (with the case of CIC energiGUNE) and the active presence of academic entities, such as universities, would undoubtedly allow progress in more efficient and sustainable extraction techniques, as well as the development of new materials and production processes not only at the national level, but also at the community level.
As a consequence of the sum of all these factors, we can foresee a scenario in which the economic impact would be immediate. The development of a large national lithium industry would boost job creation in local communities at all levels: from the extraction itself, to the subsequent stages of processing and battery manufacturing; in other words, the industries associated with lithium could generate thousands of direct and indirect jobs throughout the value chain. The advantages and benefits of being one of the main lithium extractors in Europe would therefore be considerable
The great environmental challenge
All of the above has a counterpoint: the environmental implications of setting up a lithium mining industry. Among the main issues to be taken into account, we can point out at least four. The viability of any mining project will depend on an adequate response to each of them.
The first is the responsible use of water. Lithium extraction often involves intensive water use in the mining and extraction processes, which can have an impact on local water resources. It is important to implement efficient and sustainable water management practices and to ensure that water supply for local communities, agriculture or other essential uses is not compromised.
Secondly, proper waste and chemical management must be considered. Such an industry will generate waste and chemical emissions that must be properly managed. It is imperative to conduct thorough environmental impact studies and implement mitigation measures to protect the biodiversity of the affected areas.
The third relevant issue is energy use and carbon emissions. While lithium is a key component in the transition to cleaner energy, the extraction and processing of the mineral requires a considerable amount of energy, for which it will be desirable to seek renewable energy sources that minimize the carbon footprint of the entire supply chain.
Finally, as far as the environmental challenge is concerned, participation and consultation with local communities should be taken into account. Lithium extraction can have a significant impact on local communities, both in terms of employment and changes to their environment. For this reason it is essential to involve communities in the decision-making process, provide clear and transparent information on potential impacts, and ensure that proper risk-benefit assessments are carried out before any project is initiated.
In short, it is safe to say that lithium mining in Spain has enormous potential – and will surely be an essential part of the European Union´s strategy – but it also presents challenges for which it will be essential to find a balance between boosting the lithium industry and protecting the environment by implementing sustainable practices and clean technologies.
It is here where research and development activity plays a fundamental role, in order to respond to these key challenges to ensure the sustainability of the industry and reach the aforementioned break-even point. In this sense, from CIC energiGUNE we seek through our science to contribute to reduce these impacts and effects, promoting a truly sustainable value chain from its initial stages.
Source: CIC energiGUNE