As cars become more environmentally friendly, Europe eyeing lithium ‘white gold rush

As the “white gold” becomes a critical resource in the fight against climate change, Europe is looking to enhance its lithium mining and refining capacity and wean itself off imports. 

Lithium, like nickel and cobalt, allows power to be stored and transferred, making it vital in the development of electric batteries as carmakers move away from harmful fossil fuels. 

However, for the strategically essential and highly desired metals, Europe is largely reliant on outside suppliers. 

The world’s largest lithium producer is Australia, but China accounts for 60% of worldwide lithium refining, converting the metal into carbonate or lithium hydroxide. 

At a conference in Paris on Thursday, EU ministers and officials discussed the increasingly pressing issue. It will also be on the agenda when EU industry ministers meet on January 31 and February 1 in the northern French city of Lens. 

 Worldwide lithium demand will be 40 times higher by 2040, with 475,000 tons produced in 2021.  Europe would not be able to meet more than 30% of its lithium, nickel, and cobalt needs by 2030.  

Lithium was recently added to the European Union’s list of essential metals. 

With at least 38 new electric battery facilities planned across Europe, the issue of supplying them with the essential metals is far from addressed. 

The French government has set aside a one-billion-euro budget and issued tenders for the extraction and refinement of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and iridium. 

Eramet, a French mining company, has recovered lithium from geothermal brine in Alsace, in eastern France, marking a technological breakthrough that could pave the way for more research in the Rhine basin. 

In 2024, Germany will also be home to a refinery built by the Canadian company Rock Tech Lithium. 

A lithium refinery led by Galp Energia, a Portuguese oil company, and Northvolt, a Swedish battery manufacturer, has just been launched in Portugal. 

NGOs and experts, on the other hand, have warned about the environmental consequences of growing mining activities. 

Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate that has funded mining exploration investigations in Serbia since 2004, was met with protests in the Balkan country in December, as demonstrators demanded the publication of information on the project’s environmental impact. 

A lithium mining project in Portugal’s north is also set to be decided by the country’s environmental regulator. 

Lithium triangle – Europe may be able to enhance its lithium supplies from South America. The “lithium triangle” includes Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile is the world’s second-largest producer of expensive metal. 

Chile, which was the world’s top lithium producer until 2016, granted a Chinese and a Chilean corporation an exploration and production license on Thursday. 

Chile aspires to reclaim its global leadership position by allocating 80,000 tons of lithium to each company. 

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