Lithium mining projects around Europe
Europe is looking to increase its domestic supply of lithium. Find out which companies are moving ahead with lithium-mining projects in the area.
A big part of reaching that objective is the electrification of transportation, and recently proposed legislation sets targets to cut carbon emissions from cars by 55 percent and vans by 50 percent by 2030.
As battery metals investors know, the electric vehicle industry is a key demand driver for essential metals such as lithium — which the European Union included on its critical minerals list for the first time in 2020.
Furthermore, in recent years there has been a push to build out supply chains that are less dependent on Asia, particularly China, with the European Union working to release its Critical Raw Materials Act.
Europe is desperate to increase its domestic supply of lithium, though only a limited number of projects are capable of achieving production in the coming years, Jack Bedder of Project Blue told the Investing News Network.
For Bedder, Europe will have to innovate to significantly reduce its reliance on imported lithium feedstock. “Europe’s ability to ‘win’ the battle for lithium self-sufficiency remains hinged on technological breakthroughs, along with the creation of a supporting framework in which new mining and processing facilities can operate in a globally competitive industry”, he said.
Even though Europe’s lithium supply is quite limited, there are a few companies exploring and developing lithium projects in the region, with the aim of supplying the electric vehicle industry. Here’s a brief overview of some of them listed in alphabetical order.
European Lithium’s Wolfsberg hard-rock lithium deposit in Austria has a positive prefeasibility study. The company is currently working on a definitive feasibility study that is expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2023.
The ASX-listed company, which is aiming to be the first and largest local supplier of lithium hydroxide in the region, holds a non-binding memorandum of understanding with BMW. If a deal is agreed upon, the German carmaker would make an upfront payment of US$15 million for the future supply of lithium hydroxide from Wolfsberg.
The company recently made news headlines when it said it would merge with Sizzle Acquisition, a special purpose acquisition company, to create a US-listed company called Critical Metals. European Lithium would be Critical Metals’ biggest shareholder.
European Metals’ Cinovec project is said to host the largest lithium resource in Europe. Cinovec, which is located in the Czech Republic, is a hard-rock lithium deposit that is 49 percent owned by European Metals and 51 percent owned by energy group CEZ.
According to a 2022 prefeasibility study, the Cinovec project will have a mine life of 25 years and annual production of 29,386 metric tons (MT) per year of battery grade lithium hydroxide.
Starting in 2028, minerals company Imerys is looking to produce 34,000 MT of lithium hydroxide per year for the next 25 years at an existing mine at Beauvoir in Central France. The company has also recently detected lithium in the British region of Cornwall; Imerys is currently exploring the viability of lithium mining in the region.
The San Jose deposit in Spain is 75 percent owned by Australia’s Infinity Lithium. The company, which published an underground mine scoping study in 2022, will mine the hard-rock mica resource and develop processing facilities. Infinity Lithium also kicked off the mining license and environmental impact assessment process this year.
Keliber holds several advanced lithium deposits in Finland’s Central Ostrobothnian area.
The privately held company’s lithium project is comprised of five mines, the spodumene concentrator area at Päiväneva, the lithium chemical plant at the Kokkola Industrial Park and auxiliary facilities at all sites. The company is aiming to reach production capacity of 15,000 MT of lithium hydroxide per year starting in 2025.
Keliber is majority owned by Sibanye-Stillwater, which upped its stake in the company earlier this year to 84.96 percent. State-owned company Finnish Minerals Group, alongside other minority shareholders, holds the remainder.
Seasoned lithium investors will have heard of the Jadar lithium-borate deposit in Serbia, a massive deposit where lithium is hosted by the previously unknown borosilicate mineral jadarite. Major miner Rio Tinto has invested and committed more than US$450 million to the project to date, but has faced massive environmental protests, leading the Serbian government to block the project.
Savannah Resources is working on the Mina do Barroso hard-rock lithium project in Northern Portugal. The asset, which is considered one of Europe’s biggest lithium projects, was awarded a 30 year mining lease in 2006, and has a three block mining lease application.
The company has faced opposition from environmental and community groups. Savannah Resources has been required to resubmit its environmental impact assessment, which is expected to happen in the first quarter of 2023.
Vulcan Energy Resources
Vulcan Energy Resources says its combined geothermal energy and lithium resource is the largest in Europe, with license areas in the Upper Rhine Valley in Germany and Italy. It is developing its zero-carbon project with the aim of decarbonizing lithium production.
Vulcan has signed deals with Stellantis, Renault, Umicore and South Korea’s LG Chem.
After acquiring Deutsche Lithium in 2021, Zinnwald Lithium is now the sole owner of the Zinnwald deposit in Zinnwald-Georgenfeld, located on the eastern side of Germany near the border with Czechia.
The Zinnwald deposit is a late-stage development project with an approved 30 year mining license. The company is currently working to update its environmental impact assessment, Investing News writes.
Europe is looking to enter the race for lithium
Lithium is the essential resource for developing a sustainable electric vehicle industry in Europe. Until now, this resource has mainly been produced in Australia, Chile, and China. Europe is looking to enter the race for this white gold and is betting on several deposits in its soil. We’ve put together a list below of the 6 main European mines that will be exploited in the coming years.
Lithium is a white powder that is essential for the manufacture of electric car batteries. In 2021, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), global production is close to 100,000 metric tons, a figure 20% higher than in 2020. Global consumption in 2021 is estimated to be 93,000 metric tons. This is due to strong growth in global demand, particularly because of the accelerated production of EV batteries required for the energy transition.
This alkaline metal allows electrons to flow between a positive and a negative electrode, both of which are immersed in an ionic conducting liquid (the electrolyte).
When a lithium-ion battery is used, for example to power an electric car, the electrons accumulated in the negative electrode are released and reach the positive electrode. The opposite happens when the battery is being charged. Without lithium, batteries could not power a device and then recharge.
There are two types of lithium that can be used in batteries: lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide. Currently, the demand for lithium hydroxide for batteries is increasing and could exceed the demand for lithium carbonate by 2030. Lithium hydroxide is currently priced at around US$35,000 a metric ton. Lithium carbonate is around US$ 59,900 a metric ton.
The problem with this precious metal is that it is found in a few places on earth. The main producers are Australia (55%), Chile (26%), China (14%), and Argentina (6%). China is the leading lithium refiner.
Reducing Europe’s Dependence
This means that Europe has no choice today but to import almost all the lithium it consumes. According to forecasts, at least 30 million zero-emission electric vehicles will be on the roads of the EU by 2030. Thermal vehicles will be banned in Europe in 2035. By 2030, Europe aims to produce 25% of the world’s batteries (compared to 3% in 2020) in its numerous production plants currently under construction.
The EU should therefore see its lithium consumption explode in the coming years. Some estimates predict a 20-fold increase between 2020 and 2030.
In a tweet, Ursula von der Leyen warned that Europe must get rid of its dependence on the outside world, especially China. She believes the continent must put in place an industrial strategy not only for lithium but for all the other rare earth elements found in batteries such as nickel, cobalt, or graphite.
Europe has already entered the race for the new white gold and is seeking to develop its own lithium mining industry. The USGS estimates probable European resources at 7% of the world total. The number of mining projects has increased in recent years in several European countries.
Here is a tour of Europe’s main projects and the companies behind them. These projects could eventually cover 80% of European battery needs.
The Barroso Project, Savannah Resources
Portugal has the largest reserve of lithium in Europe with around 60,000 metric tons of known reserves, according to the USGS. But until now, Portuguese lithium has mainly been used in the ceramics industry to make glassware. The country is just now entering the race for the new white gold.
British company Savannah Resources has ambitions to exploit the Barroso mine in the north of the country, which is rich in spodumene, a form of hard rock lithium.
According to Savannah Resources, the mine could contain 27 million metric tons of lithium, including over 285,900 metric tons of lithium oxide. According to the company, this is enough to meet the demand in Europe over the next few decades.
The group is waiting for the green light from the Portuguese authorities to start production as the project is facing strong local opposition. If opened in 2023, the Mina do Barroso open-pit mine will become the first major producer of lithium in Europe.
The Vulcan Project, Vulcan Energy
Australian company Vulcan Energy is currently working on a pilot project in the Upper Rhine Valley in Germany. The idea is to produce “zero-carbon” green lithium by using geothermal energy to extract lithium-rich brine from the Upper Rhine. The final lithium hydroxide will then be created by electrolysis.
The company says they were able to produce 57.1% lithium hydroxide, surpassing the 56.5% battery grade specifications usually required.
The Vulcan pilot plant in Germany has been operating since April 2021 and is expected to launch commercial production in 2025.
The EMILI Project, Imerys
French company Imerys recently announced that it will start mining a lithium deposit in the Massif Central (in the Allier department) in 2028.
Since the second half of the 19th century, the site has been home to a quarry producing 30,000 metric tons of kaolin per year for tile production.
According to Alessandro Dazza, CEO of Imerys, the deposit contains one million metric tons of lithium oxide. This would be enough to produce, according to the company, “34,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide per year from 2028 over 25 years.” This would enable approximately 700,000 electric vehicles to be equipped with lithium-ion batteries.
4/ Czech Republic
The Cinovec Project, European Metals Holding
The Cinovec project, located 100 km from Prague in the Czech Republic, is being carried out by European Metals Holding. It aims to produce nearly 30,000 metric tons of battery-grade lithium per year over a period of 25 years.
According to European Metals’ 2022 pre-feasibility study, Cinovec has the potential to become the producer of the lowest-cost hard rock lithium in the world. The mine could produce at a cost of US$5,000 to US$6,000 per metric ton.
The Wolfsberg Project, European Lithium
European Lithium is developing the Wolfsberg Project in Carinthia, 270 km south of Vienna, in Austria. Located in the heart of Europe, this mine project plans to extract 10,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide per year.
According to the company, this will equip the batteries of approximately 200,000 electric vehicles. They hope to achieve an operating rate of 800,000 metric tons per year with a mine life of over ten years.
The company expects to begin production in 2025.
The Keliber Project, Keliber Oy
Finnish company Keliber Oy, specializing in mining and battery chemicals, is currently running a project in western Finland with the objective of reaching the production of 15,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide per year beginning in 2025.
The company is also aiming for sustainable production. The lithium they plan to extract will, they say, have a smaller carbon footprint than the competition. This is because the refinery plant is located 70 km from the mine. In addition to this, more than half of the electricity in the Finnish national grid is generated from renewable energy sources. As a result, the refining process will be more environmentally friendly.
The Finnish potential has attracted the attention of investors. South African mining giant Sibanye-Stillwater intends to acquire a majority stake in Keliber Oy.
The enthusiasm for lithium mining in Europe is not unanimous, however. In Serbia, the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto stopped its project in the southwest of the country due to local opposition.
In the future, the most important challenge for Europe will be to find ways to accommodate mining projects and environmental and social standards. As can be seen, the European lithium extraction projects that are listed above will not be operational until 2025. But the demand for gigafactories is already here. Swedish company Northvolt has already opened Europe’s first battery gigafactory, Direct Industry writes.
“Lithium is not the answer”
Another voice has spoken out against the government plan to excavate vast swathes of heritage landscape in the rush to mine lithium.
And this voice is not simply concerned with heritage; it joins a number of ‘expert warnings’ that lithium is not the answer to Portugal’s path towards decarbonisation .
It belongs to former environmental secretary (PSD) and university professor Joaquim Poças Martins.
Mr Martins argues that the way forwards for Portugal will be in ‘green hydrogen’ – a strategy already being developed by PS Socialists.
He told Lusa: “You cannot destroy a mountain in order to extract a few kilos of lithium”.
This has always been the contention – the outrage expressed by local people in areas ‘identified’ for being ‘rich in lithium deposits’: where is the justification in destroying lives and landscapes for the sake of a few electric batteries for electric cars?
“Batteries won’t be the solution”, Mr Martins insists. “It is simply not possible: there aren’t enough materials in the earth for this effect.
“I am thinking more of hydrogen. Everything is pointing more towards hydrogen as a form of storing energy than batteries”.
He simplified his argument by explaining that “in half a dozen years” the lithium deposits ‘identified in Portugal’ may well have run dry.
Then “we will have a serious problem” – not least because of the destruction the lithium mining itself will have created.
“On the other hand, so called green hydrogen can be produced, and when it burns the final product is water, not carbon dioxide”
Energy, in the final analysis, “is one of the principal problems for the future” as well as being “part of the solution.
“The world of safe, abundant, cheap energy will allow many more people to live on earth, everywhere, and live better”, he stressed. But this “does not come from current solutions”.
Even when it comes to hydrogen, “the technology is still in maturity, that is the large-scale industrial development of green hydrogen in which, for example, solar energy is used in abundance to produce hydrogen, which can be used when there is no sun”.
The specialist who has headed up Porto University’s hydraulics, water resources and environment section of the Faculty of Engineering for decades, says “everything points” to an increasing use of offshore photovoltaic (solar) and eolic (wind) energy, along the lines of the model in Viana do Castelo, with massive turbines.
“The science is there”, he explains. It is simply that technology is taking its time to catch up: a car powered by green hydrogen, a plane, everything in fact, would be “much too expensive now because the technology is not yet mature enough, but it will be in five or 10 years time.
“This is the solution, it won’t be (lithium) batteries”.
Nonetheless, he accepts that in areas where “social and environmental impacts” would be negligible, then “yes” lithium mining makes some sense.
“Destroying entire hillside ranges, displacing people, to extract a small quantity of lithium for private use, much less so”.
Joaquim Poças Martins’ comments have been widely repeated by national media today, but it is unclear how the government will receive them.
Less than two months ago, environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes – albeit a minister who may well be replaced in the new government to emerge in February – has said that “exploration of lithium (in Portugal) is an inevitable path” and that “lithium is essential for decarbonisation” and for “digitalisation”.
Mr Matos Fernandes has also said it is vitally important for Portugal to ‘exploit” (in this case mine) the raw materials that it has, as there is currently a worldwide lack of raw materials.