In the race for lithium, France plans one of Europe’s biggest mines by 2027

An electric car being charged, October 20, 2022 (Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Archives)

One of Europe’s biggest lithium mines – a white powder that intoxicates the electric battery industry and is expected to allow cars to rid themselves of the oil that emits CO2 – will see the light of day in 2027 in France’s Massif Central.

The “Emili” project, announced Monday morning by French industrial minerals group Imerys, will help Europe get rid of its near-total dependence on China for the lithium needed for electric car batteries, supposedly the only new vehicles. that can be sold in the European Union from 2035.

It took 18 months of surveys and studies carried out by specialists in mineral extraction in the basement of a kaolin quarry maintained since 2005 by the group in Beauvoir in the Allier (center), to confirm the economic interest of the mine.

Bruno Le Maire in Paris, October 11, 2022
Bruno Le Maire in Paris, 11 October 2022 (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP/Archives)

With the exploration of this deposit, “we will help Europe to decarbonize”, declared to the press on Monday Alessandro Dazza, director general of Imerys, who was supposed to receive the local elected on the spot.

“This project, exemplary in environmental and climate terms, will drastically reduce our lithium import needs”, welcomed the French Minister of Economy, Bruno Le Maire, in the group’s press release. He adds that he will be supported by the French government.

“One Million Tons”

Of the ten European lithium exploration projects, Imerys’s is the second largest since the abandonment of the Rio Tinto project in Serbia in January, and behind the start-up Vulcan in Germany, based on the Rhine Valley brine exploration.

The “concentrations and amounts” of lithium were considered “very attractive” in Beauvoir, which since 1850 has been home to a quarry that produces 30,000 tons of kaolin a year for porcelain or tiles.

During a demonstration in Belgrade on December 4, 2021, against Rio Tinto's lithium mining project
During a demonstration in Belgrade on December 4, 2021, against Rio Tinto’s lithium mining project (OLIVER BUNIC/AFP/Archives)

Since the 1960s, the Bureau of Geological and Mining Research (BRGM) has clearly identified the presence of lithium in this subsoil. But Imerys was until recently unaware of the content and thus whether the site could be profitable.

“We estimate the deposit at about a million tonnes of lithium oxide,” Dazza said. Or “much more than the BRGM initially thought” (320 thousand tons).

Enough to produce “34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year from 2028 for a period of at least 25 years” and “to power the equivalent of 700,000 electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries” per year, according to Imerys.

Which is far from negligible: Current global production of lithium carbonate or hydroxide, the two elements used in batteries, does not exceed 450,000 tons worldwide, according to Imerys.

And by 2040, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts it will be multiplied by 40.

In Beauvoir, “there may be more than we estimated, we will continue the studies to see if we can have 30 or 35 years of operation,” added Dazza.

The concentration is of the order of 0.9 to 1%, that is, it is necessary to extract about 100 tons of rock to extract a ton of lithium.

Lithium carbonate bags at an extraction site in Bolivia on July 10, 2019.
Lithium carbonate bags at an extraction site in Bolivia, July 10, 2019 (Pablo COZZAGLIO, Pablo COZZAGLIO / AFP/Archives)

The group estimates its production costs “between 7 and 9 euros per kilo excluding the initial investment, which would guarantee “an interesting return on investment”.

And it promises in the long term 1,000 direct and indirect jobs in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, in two locations: the underground mine for extracting mica containing lithium, between 75 and 350 meters deep; and a mineral purification and lithium hydroxide processing plant, less than 100 kilometers from the mine.

Environmental impact

The likely environmental criticisms against this new mining project in the heart of France remain.

Imerys has announced that the mine will adopt a developing international standard, “IRMA”, which aims to reduce toxic discharges and minimize water consumption.

Mining will be underground, which will minimize dust, and rocks will be transported by pipelines and railroads to avoid trucks between the mine and the industrial park. As for the emissions generated by the operation, the group estimates them at 8 kg of C02 per ton of lithium, against 16 to 20 kg in Australia and China, according to him.

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