Earlier this year, the European Parliament approved the Fit for 55 package, the European Union’s ambitious plan to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Increasing use of electric vehicles will be essential to this plan – and to power those vehicles, Europe will need to significantly shore up its lithium supply.
According to a briefing prepared for the EU Parliament in 2021, Europe will need access to 18 times more lithium by 2030 and 60 times more by 2050, to meet projected demand for electric vehicles, which predominantly use lithium-powered batteries.
“Almost all demand for lithium comes from batteries,” Leonard Buizza, lead analyst for clean energy supply chains at the Energy Transitions Commission, tells The Parliament. Laptops and mobile phones using lithium-ion batteries will “keep on being a part of demand in the coming years,” he says, “but it’s going to get dwarfed by this very rapidly growing demand from electric vehicles”.
Buizza thinks sourcing enough lithium for electric vehicle production is possible, but cautions that doing so presents a number of urgent challenges. Among Europe’s challenges is ensuring manufacturers can get enough of it. Rapidly rising demand for lithium has already driven its price to exorbitant levels, and supply gaps are expected to intensify.
“Estimates for mined supply of lithium in 2030 fall short of expected demand, and that’s on both the business-as-usual baseline but also on a more aggressive, net-zero aligned [model],” says Buizza, adding that we are likely to see shortages if the supply doesn’t continually increase over the next few years.
You want to make sure you’re able to withstand any potential supply chain shocks
Aside from lithium, automakers transitioning towards manufacturing 100 per cent electric vehicles will need access to a steady supply of several key minerals. In addition to the metals needed for producing petrol-powered cars, electric vehicle also require graphite, nickel and cobalt.
In an effort to secure Europe’s supply of key minerals, the EU Parliament and Council passed the Critical Raw Materials Act, which set specific targets for mining, refining and recycling materials such as lithium and copper. One specific goal stated in the legislation is that at least 10 per cent of Europe’s lithium supply should be domestically sourced by 2030. That’s up from virtually zero domestic lithium production in Europe today.
”You want to make sure you’re able to withstand any kind of potential supply chain shocks that might arise, and a part of that might be near-shoring or localisation,” says Buizza.
While lithium is crucial for the transition away from fossil fuel use, the mining process behind it is an extractive, industrial process that can be harmful to nearby communities and environments. As such, ramping up lithium production in Europe raises an immediate question: in whose backyard?
Last year Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabić, announced that permits for a massive lithium exploration and mining project were annulled following months of widespread protests.
At present, Portugal is the only EU Member State to mine and process lithium. It produces a relatively small supply of lithium that is used for ceramics manufacturing. But according to the 2021 mineral commodity summaries produced by the US Geological Survey, Portugal holds the world’s eighth-largest lithium supply, following Brazil and Zimbabwe. Several multinational mining corporations are hoping to break ground on new open-pit mines in the country in the next few years.
Savannah Resources, a London-based mineral mining company, has proposed a number of sites for lithium mines in Portugal’s Covas do Barroso region. According to a statement provided by the company, the “Barroso Lithium Project” will produce enough lithium for 500,000 battery packs per year, and commercial production is expected to begin by 2026.
On 31 May this year, the Portuguese Environment Agency approved the environmental impact assessment for Savannah’s proposed project, while also citing a number of conditions that should be met. Among them is not taking water from the region’s Covas River, and partially backfilling and landscaping mines after ore extraction has ceased.
Many residents in the Covas Do Barroso region worry that industrial mining would threaten their ability to farm and their traditional way of living. The region is recognised by the United Nations as a site of globally important agricultural heritage, due to its local farming traditions.
”The village I come from has been there since the 12th century and we’ve developed a very sustainable way of living over generations, having to do with the way we manage water and the soil,” says Catarina Scarrott, a spokeswoman for a local movement opposed to the mine.
Savannah holds a mining lease for nearly 600 hectares of land, on which it plans to dig four or five mining pits. According to Savannah Resources the mining sites “will cover a total area of 71 hectares at their full extent”. Scarrott says one of the planned pits will come as close as 400m to the nearest homes, and the size of that pit alone will be larger than the village it will sit next to.
“They’re talking about moving watercourses … and a rate of tailings, like one to six,” says Scarrott. “So for each tonne [of lithium], they will leave behind another six tonnes of waste which is going to be piled up less than one kilometre from the river.”
In a statement to The Parliament, Savannah Resources says its agreement to conditions suggested by Portugal’s Environment Agency “should provide further assurance that the project will be developed and operated in a socially and environmentally responsible way”.
Scarrott is sceptical of such claims. While listening to her concerns about the impacts of the mine is pretty bleak, she hasn’t lost hope that her homeland can be protected.
“As an individual I thought, ‘What can I do?’ But the community has seen what’s happened, and they can see clearly what is coming, and they have made a joint decision that they’re not going to allow it to go through.”
The local impact of lithium mining has led to questions on whether electrification really is the solution to fight global warming. Currently, lithium is mined in two ways. Hard-rock mining, the method projects in Portugal would employ, is a chemically-intensive process involving digging vast, open pits and removing rocks that contain lithium.
The second way is salar pond mining, used in Argentina and Chile. It involves filling shallow pools with lithium-rich groundwater and letting it evaporate until only the mineral salts remain. Salar pond mines can spread over thousands of square kilometres, depleting groundwater reserves that are vital for local populations in desert regions where these mines exist.
This world of lithium has been growing extremely fast in the past three or four years
But there is an experimental process for lithium production that, if successfully scaled up, could produce battery-grade lithium with minimal impact.
The city of Bruchsal, in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg region, discovered in 1979 that a geothermal water source under the city could be tapped for heat and steam to generate energy – and construction on a geothermal power plant began.
The plant wasn’t immediately successful and shut down in 1987. But thanks in part to funding from the Renewable Energy Sources Act, the project was revived. In 2009, the Bruchsal plant began commercial energy generation.
Now, local energy company Energie Baden-Württemberg (EnBW) is working with researchers from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) to develop a process to extract tonnes of battery-grade lithium from the hot, salty water that powers the Bruchsal plant. If their project succeeds, it could produce Europe’s cleanest supply of lithium.
Professor Jochen Kolb, chair of geochemistry and economic geology at KIT, actively researches methods for collecting lithium from geothermal sources in Germany’s Rhine Graben region.
“We don’t want to disturb the power plant operation,” says Kolb, explaining that water which has already gone through heat extraction could then be put through a “chemical sieve” of lithium-manganese oxide, which selectively bonds with lithium and not the other mineral compounds in the water.
“Of course, in Germany we have some regulations we have to follow,” Kold adds. “This is why selectivity is so important, so that we don’t modify the water too much.”
Being attached to a geothermal power plant, this method of lithium extraction could be powered entirely by renewable energy, and because the water is pumped back underground, it doesn’t deplete groundwater resources. What’s more, the surface area of this kind of project is minimal compared to conventional mines.
“In the end, the size of the extraction facility would be like two to three shipping containers,” Kolb says. Calculating for a 70 per cent efficiency rate of lithium extraction from that water, Kolb thinks it’s possible the plant could collect enough lithium for an e-bike in a few minutes, or a car battery in about an hour.
“We believe we can produce 800 tonnes of lithium carbonate per year,” says Thomas Kölbel, group expert for geothermal and applied geology at EnBW. ”If you compare that to the needs of a battery for e-mobility, that’s 20,000 batteries for simple cars.”
Scaling up this experimental lithium extraction process, however will take time. “We were successful with our pilot tests, so the next step is usually that you go to a demonstrator,” Kölbel says. He believes the demonstrator could be operational in 2025 or 2026.
If everything works out successfully, there is reason to believe this method of lithium production could be scaled up across Europe – lithium-rich groundwater is not unique to Germany. Kolb says there could also be lithium sources across the continent.
“I would think it could be in all the bigger basins,” he says, “so it could be around Paris or east France. Also east of Vienna and in Hungary there is potential. It is likely to be everywhere we have deep-seated salty waters.”
After it has been mined, raw lithium’s materials need to be processed before they can be used in batteries. Apart from certain parts of Australia, nearly all lithium processing today occurs in China.
Several companies are racing to bring lithium processing capacity to Europe. Among the leaders is AMG Lithium
“We’ve purchased a piece of land 150km south of Berlin, which is enough to host the first [lithium processing] module,” says Dr André Majdalani, director of sales and marketing at AMG Lithium, which plans to begin refining lithium to battery grade at its new plant in Bitterfeld before the end of this year.
AMG Group also owns a mine in Brazil, which has been in operation since 1945. After tin and some other metals were removed, the mine’s tailings were found to contain one per cent lithium. Eventually AMG wants to bring those tailings, along with a mix of other lithium sources, to its processor in Europe.
But the first module to come online at AMG’s Bitterfeld plant will only refine technical-grade lithium into battery-grade lithium hydroxide. So raw materials from AMG’s operations in Brazil would still need to be shipped to China for initial processing.
Still, processing lithium hydroxide locally is important because, as Majdalani puts it: “battery-grade hydroxide doesn’t like travelling too much”.
To this end, AMG is expanding the refinery at the Bitterfeld site to a total of five modules by 2030, which will produce 100,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually.
“This world of lithium has been growing extremely fast in the past three or four years,” says Majdalani, adding that Europe has “truly worked” on the Critical Raw Materials Act.
While legislation moves notoriously slowly in Europe, it appears the continent’s lithium producers, processors and consumers are all vying to get established.
Not too far away from AMG’s Bitterfeld plant, Rock Tech is constructing its own lithium converter, which is expected to be commissioned next year. And Sweden-based battery manufacturer Northvolt has plans to build a giga-factory in Germany, having set clear goals for using 50 per cent recycled lithium in its batteries by 2030. The race is on.