French project aims to supply Europe with lithium

A lithium-ion battery at a Volkswagen plant in Germany. The EU expects to increase the number of electric vehicles on its roads in the coming years.

Ronnie Hartmann | AFP | Getty Images

Mineral giant headquartered in Paris Imeris plans to develop a lithium mining project that they hope will help meet demand and secure supplies for the emerging European electric vehicle market.

In a statement Monday, Imerys said its Emili project will be located at a site in the center of France and plans to produce 34,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide annually from 2028.

According to the company, this level of production will be enough to “equip approximately 700,000 electric vehicles per year.”

Along with its use in cell phones, computers, tablets and a plethora of other gadgets synonymous with modern life, lithium, referred to by some as “white gold”, is critical to the batteries that power electric vehicles.

The project planned by Imerys comes at a time when major economies like the EU are looking to increase the number of electric vehicles on their roads.

The EU plans to stop selling new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2035. The UK, which left the EU on 31 January 2020, has similar goals.

With lithium demand on the rise, the European Union, of which France is a member, is trying to strengthen its own supplies and reduce dependence on other parts of the world.

In a translation of her State of the Union address last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “lithium and rare earths will soon become more important than oil and gas.”

Speaking about security of supply, von der Leyen, who switched between several languages ​​during her speech, also stressed the importance of processing.

“Today, China controls the global manufacturing industry,” she said. “Nearly 90%… rare earth[s] and 60% of lithium is recycled in China.”

“Therefore, we will identify strategic projects along the entire supply chain, from mining to processing, from processing to processing,” she added. “And we will create strategic reserves where supplies are at risk.”

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Back in France, Imerys said it was completing what it called a “technical preliminary study” to “explore various exploitation options and clarify the geological and industrial aspects associated with the lithium mining and processing method.”

The place chosen for the project, from the end of the 19th century, were used to produce a clay called kaolin for use in the ceramics industry.

The capital cost of building the proposed lithium project is estimated to be around 1 billion euros (roughly $980 million), Imeris said.

“If successfully completed, the project will contribute to the realization of the ambitions of France and the European Union to move towards an energy transition,” the company said. “It will also boost Europe’s industrial sovereignty at a time when car and battery manufacturers are heavily dependent on imports of lithium, which is a key element in the energy transition.”

In recent years, a number of factors have created pressure points when it comes to supplying materials critical to electric vehicles, as the International Energy Agency highlighted earlier this year. in its global overview of electric vehicles.

“The rapid rise in sales of electric vehicles during the pandemic has been a test of the resilience of battery supply chains, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has exacerbated the problem,” the IEA said in a report, adding that prices for materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel have skyrocketed. .

“In May 2022, lithium prices were more than seven times higher than at the beginning of 2021,” the company added. “The key drivers are unprecedented demand for batteries and the lack of structural investment in new capacity.”

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In a recent CNBC interview, CEO Mercedes Benz outlined the current state of affairs as he saw it when it came to the raw materials needed for electric vehicles and their batteries.

“Commodity prices have been quite volatile over the last 12-18 months – some have risen sharply and some have fallen again,” said Ola Kallenius.

“But it’s true, as we go electric, all-electric, and more and more automakers move into the electric space, there is a need to increase the capacity to mine and process lithium, nickel and some of the raw materials that are needed to make electric vehicles.”

“We have everything we need now, but we need to look to the medium to long term and work with the mining industry here to increase capacity.”

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