French mission to produce Europe with lithium

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

Ronnie Hartmann | AFP | Getty Images

Minerals giant based in Paris Imerys plans to develop a lithium extraction project which it hopes will help meet demand and secure supplies for Europe’s emerging electric vehicle market.

In a statement Monday, Imerys said its Emili project will be located at a site in central France, with the company targeting annual production of 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide from 2028.

According to the company, this production volume would be sufficient to “equip around 700,000 electric vehicles per year”.

In addition to its use in cellphones, computers, tablets and a host of other devices synonymous with modern life, lithium — dubbed “white gold” by some — is critical to the batteries that power electric vehicles.

The project envisaged by Imerys is taking shape as major economies like the EU look to increase the number of electric vehicles on their roads.

The EU plans to stop the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2035. Great Britain, which left the EU on January 31, 2020, is pursuing similar goals.

Faced with increasing demand for lithium, 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 outnumber oil and gas”.

In addition to security of supply, von der Leyen, who switched between several languages ​​in her speech, also emphasized the importance of processing.

“Today, China controls the global processing industry,” she said. “Almost 90%… rare earth elements[s] and 60% of lithium is processed in China.”

“Therefore, we will identify strategic projects along the entire supply chain, from extraction to refining, from processing to recycling,” she added. “And we will build strategic reserves where supply is at risk.”

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Back in France, Imerys said it was completing what it called a “technical scoping study” to “explore various operational options and refine geological and industrial aspects related to the lithium extraction and processing methodology.”

The site selected for the project has been used to produce a type of clay called kaolin for the ceramics industry since the late 19th century.

The construction investment of the proposed lithium project is estimated at around 1 billion euros (about US$980 million), Imerys added.

“If successfully completed, the project would contribute to the ambitions of the French and European Union in the field of energy transition,” the company said. “It would also strengthen Europe’s industrial sovereignty at a time when car and battery manufacturers are heavily dependent on imported lithium, which is a key element of the energy transition.”

In recent years, a number of factors have created pressure points when it comes to the supply of the materials critical to electric vehicles, an issue the International Energy Agency highlighted in its Global EV Outlook earlier this year.

“The rapid rise in electric vehicle sales during the pandemic has tested the resilience of battery supply chains, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has further compounded the challenge,” the IEA report noted, adding that prices for materials such as Lithium, cobalt and nickel have skyrocketed.

“In May 2022, lithium prices were more than seven times what they were in early 2021,” she added. “Unprecedented battery demand and a lack of structural investment in new supply capacity are key drivers.”

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In a recent interview with CNBC, the CEO of Mercedes Benz outlined the state of affairs as he sees it with the raw materials for electric vehicles and their batteries.

“Commodity prices have been quite volatile over the last 12 to 18 months – some have shot up and some have actually come back down,” said Ola Kallenius.

“But it’s true, as we go electric, all-electric, and more and more automakers move into electric, there will need to be increased mining and refining capacity for lithium, nickel, and some of the raw materials needed to produce electric cars.”

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

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