France may open a huge lithium mine

Imerys, we talked about this a little bit earlier in the year. This French giant, world leader in “mineral specialties for industry” bought in 2005 a mine used for the production of raw materials for ceramics. The group then seemed to remain quite cautious about the outcome of this project which might never have progressed. But in a dramatic twist, Imerys announces a massive investment in the site to produce thousands of tons of lithium hydroxide. until the end of the decade. An essential metal for electric car batteries, whatever the (current) chemistry: NMC or LFP, in both cases lithium is needed.

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French lithium for electric cars

Is Europe achieving part of its return to Asia in terms of essential metals for electric mobility? We’re not there yet. China maintains the advantage in refining and in some extractions. However, Imerys’ announcement is impressive on paper. The French company has invested around 30 million euros in research campaigns on Beauvoir’s soil. Objective: to evaluate the amount of lithium in the soil. The BRGM (Bureau of Geological and Mining Research) estimated them at just over 300,000 tons, but according to Imerys, there would be about a million tons of lithium oxide in the Allier’s soil.

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Obviously, this lithium is not “pure”. It must be separated from the rock, in a ratio of 100 to 1: that is, it will be necessary to extract 100 tons of rock to obtain one ton of lithium oxide. But this is just the first step towards the production of derivatives intended for batteries: lithium hydroxide, lithium carbonate… all these by-products are used for the electrolytes of electric car batteries. Clearly, after extraction, refineries are needed to process the raw material and turn it into essential components for plug-in vehicles. : this is the objective of the second part of the Imerys project, which also intends to install a plant to process the extracted lithium, close to the mine. In total, the project would amount to one billion euros, but with an “interesting” return on investment according to Imerys, which aims at a production between 7 and 9 euros per kilo of lithium produced.

Inevitably, this type of project raises many environmental questions: even if this lithium is underground and not in brine as in South America, its production remains an activity with a strong impact on the environment. And the transport of tons of metals? “The CO2 reduction initiatives would go through an electric mining fleet, transport by underground pipelines, by train or the use of the French low carbon electric mix”, explains the French group. By 2027, we will have time to get to know the contours of this project better.

700,000 electric cars a year?

On average, in an electric car, there is between 8 and 15 kg of lithium depending on the battery’s capacity and chemistry.©BMW

This site would be capable of producing around 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year for a minimum period of 25 years. “This would be one of the biggest lithium mining projects in the European Union and could, once fully operational, equip the equivalent of 700,000 electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries“, said Imerys.

If we finally start to have battery assembly plants in Europe, we still don’t have the raw materials. That would solve part of the problem, even if we always depend on foreign countries for cobalt and some other ingredients! A battery is not just lithium…

At stake, greater independence in Europe and 1,000 jobs created in Auvergne Rhône-Alpes. Imerys must also count on the support of part of the political class that sees this as a way to be less at the mercy of Asia in the context of the energy transition. But as always with this type of large industrial project, there is a step between the announcement, the initial numbers of the study and the actual feasibility. “Imerys is finalizing the technical scoping study to explore the various operational options and refine the geological and industrial aspects related to the lithium extraction and transformation process, which must meet demanding technical, environmental and economic criteria. Imerys is also evaluating the potential use of co-products (feldspar, tantalum, tin)“Clearly, we cannot say that France will become one of the world’s leading producers of lithium until the first stone of the plant is laid.

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