Will we quickly run out of lithium with the electric boom?

As well as the new electric 4L presented by Renault (an SUV!), presented as one of the main attractions, the Mondial de l’auto, which takes place this week in Paris, further recognizes the turn of the automotive industry to electric.

This transition is even faster than we imagined last year. To the point of pressuring the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to revise its projections. “The 100% battery electric car will be the world’s best-selling light vehicle type in 2028, three years earlier than expected, now underlines the strategy consultancy. They will represent 59% of sales in 2035, not 45% as previously estimated.”

“This says everything about the magnitude of the task facing the automotive industry. It will have to transition to this new world in a very short time and because it is immediately mature”, points out Mikaël Le Mouëllic, associate director of BCG.

Aerial view of the lithium mine processing plant at Salar Del Carmen in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, on December 26, 2016. – Photo by HO/SQM/AFP

After semiconductors, lack of lithium?

This challenge applies to manufacturers, but also to all parallel industries that supply it. There have been crises. This in particular in semiconductors, still in progress. By 2030, that shortage should be a distant memory, BCG estimates. But another may hit hard on this date: lithium. Metal is another key element of an electric car, its battery more precisely. “In terms of storage capacity and performance, lithium batteries are the most efficient solution on the market, and probably for a long time,” says Emmanuel Hache, economist specializing in raw materials at IFP Energies nouvelles (IFPEN).

And it’s not just true for our cars. “Lithium is a key element in any device that needs to store energy, from smartphones to laptops”, recalls Cécilia Mattéa, responsible for the “clean vehicles” dossier for the NGO Transporte & Meio Ambiente (T&E).

“But it is the automotive industry that is causing the demand explosion, all the more so as the transition to electricity is taking place at a faster pace than expected,” continues Mikaël Le Mouëllic. So much so that lithium could run out very quickly. In 2030, supply should be around 4% lower than expected demand, and 24% by 2035, anticipates the BCG, which could put a brake on the energy transition.

Isn’t it the most critical of the strategic metals…except in the short term?

However, lithium is not the most critical of the so-called “rare” or strategic metals, as it is present in small amounts and/or poorly distributed on Earth. “You have reserves in the United States, in Latin America, in the so-called lithium triangle – Chile-Bolivia-Argentina –, in Zimbabwe, in Australia (the largest producer in the world), in China, in Europe…”, lists Emmanuel Hache, not so worried that we could run out of lithium “by 2050”.

The risk of shortages is much greater until 2030. Emmanuel Hache and Mikaël Le Mouëllic explain this by the lack of investment in new production chains in the last ten years. “Again, few people foresaw this rapid development of the electric vehicle, and there was a risk of investing heavily in technology that could have quickly become outdated,” recalls the associate director of BCG. Result: “Five companies share 90% of the market”, continues the IFPEN economist. Two Chinese, two Americans and a Chilean. Not only does its production run the risk of not being sufficient very quickly, but this concentration in the hands of a few players also puts the car industry in an uncomfortable situation of dependence.

Ways to reduce the impacts of lithium extraction…

There is a real challenge in developing new sustainable and geostrategic lithium sectors – from extraction to refining – where they do not yet exist, believes Mikaël Le Mouëllic at the time. Even in Europe? In recent years, several lithium deposit projects have faced strong local opposition. From the region of Loznica, in Serbia, to Tréguenncec, in the south of Finistère, passing through Barroso, in the north of Portugal or the region of Estramadura, in Spain.

Starting from this problem of social acceptability in Europe, it is possible to turn it into an advantage, Cécilia Mattéa enters… By pressuring mining companies to adopt the best possible social and environmental standards. T&E’s “clean vehicles” manager takes the example of the company Infinity Lithium from Estramadura which, in the face of local disputes, “has revised its copy, moving from an open pit mine project to an underground mine, which already reduces its footprint and its impact on biodiversity. »

Protesters oppose lithium mining project in Treguennec, Finistère, February 26, 2022.
Protesters oppose the lithium extraction mine project in Treguennec, Finistère, on February 26, 2022. – FRED TANNEAU / AFP)

Anyway, that’s another key issue with lithium: getting it out as cleanly as possible. The margins of progress are significant. For the extraction of lithium from brines pumped into salt lakes, as is the case in South America, Cécilia Mattéa evokes the “DLE” for “direct lithium extraction”. “This technique, currently under development, allows us to significantly improve the lithium recovery rate per volume of treated water, that is, to produce more with less water, [ressource rare dans la région] “, she illustrates.

Less strain on geothermal lithium?

Another interesting clue: geothermal lithium. Geothermal plants produce heat by converting water contained in underground aquifers into steam. The idea is to take advantage of this water brought in from the depths to recover the lithium, before reinjecting it into the soil. A way to kill two birds with one stone and at a lower environmental cost. “And the problem of social acceptability arises less, since the geothermal plant already exists”, notes Emmanuel Hache in passing.

The proof: pilot units for the production of geothermal lithium have already appeared in Europe, particularly in Alsace, with the French mining group Eramet. This geothermal lithium is expected to meet only a few percent of lithium demand. “It doesn’t matter, it is already a way of making us Europeans aware of the wealth of our subsoil and that we will probably have to (re)explore it, certainly in the cleanest possible way”, considers Emmanuel Hache, which makes it one of the main challenges of the energy transition.

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