LusoRecursos’ major project in Portugal may soon be scrapped, but another company is making progress with lithium in the same area. The European Union is trying to overhaul its supply chain and get access to the strategic commodity without harming the environment. Lithium is essential for batteries in consumer devices, electric vehicles and storage of energy from renewables.
Portugal’s Minister of Environment João Pedro Matos Fernandes has indicated that a EUR 500 million lithium mining and processing project is about to be “completely canceled” soon. He told Politico the government may scrap the contract with LusoRecursos for exploration that was signed in 2019, citing the company’s “lack of professionalism” with regard to its “clearly insufficient” environmental impact study.
The project in Montalegre in the north was supposed to strengthen Portugal’s position as the biggest producer of the raw material in Europe. The consumer electronics industry, electric car manufacturers and investors in renewable energy depend on lithium for batteries, though the alkali metal has widespread use in other sectors as well and demand is rapidly growing.
Green mining doesn’t exist
Locals have opposed the Montalegre project, planned for development at a site next to the Gerês-Xurés biosphere reserve and their land. They said they fear the possibility of water contamination and also highlighted the risk for traditional farming activities, recognized by the United Nations as globally important agricultural heritage.
“Green mining doesn’t exist,” said Armando Pinto from the local initiative called Montalegre com Vida, while LusoRecursos threatened to sue the government.
At the same time, Portugal is supporting the nearby Barroso lithium mining project. Savannah Resources from the United Kingdom launched a public consultation process for the environmental impact study for the site.
Australia dominates lithium market
Critics question the cost-effectiveness of exploiting the petalite mineral in Portugal, as it is expensive to process it for lithium, unlike spodumene, which is mined in other places in the world. The country had a 1.6% share of global production of the metal in 2019, though it is shipped to ceramics and glassware manufacturers, Fitch said in a recent report. LusoRecursos and Savannah Resources claim the local material is suitable for batteries and other uses.
Australia supplied 54.4% of lithium on a global scale in 2019, over two times more than Chile. On the other hand, China produces more than half of the world’s lithium ion battery components.
EU trying to secure supply with focus on environmental sustainability
In addition to its European Battery Alliance, established in 2017, the European Commission launched the European Raw Materials Alliance last year and added lithium to its list of critical raw materials, most of which are necessary for green technologies. The administration in Brussels vowed to work on reducing the dependency on third countries, diversifying supply and improving resource efficiency and circularity.
The European Commission is concerned about the dependence on imports of lithium and components for devices
“We import lithium for electric cars, platinum to produce clean hydrogen, silicon metal for solar panels – 98% of the rare earth elements we need come from a single supplier, China, and this is not sustainable,” President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said in February.
Serbia in turmoil over environmental impact of lithium mining
There is another battlefront on the other side of the continent. Locals in western Serbia and activists have been protesting against the research of lithium deposits. The Balkan country is said to have the third-largest reserves of the metal in Europe.
Rio Tinto is leading the way with exploration near Loznica. Jadar Resources, formerly known as Jadar Lithium and controlled by Australia-based Victory West Moly, said in March that it obtained exploration licenses. Euro Lithium Balkan, owned by Euro Lithium from Canada, is exploring lithium near Valjevo.
Environmentalists claim the government and the companies are ignoring the legal procedure, particularly with regard to the environmental impact. Locals from villages near the town of Požega complain they were never informed that exploration would be conducted on their land.
Zero carbon lithium could be produced in Germany, UK
Is there a way to produce lithium and not hurt the environment and people’s livelihoods at the same time?
EIT InnoEnergy, the European innovation engine for sustainable energy, partnered with Vulcan Energy Resources, a startup lithium exploration company, to produce the world’s first completely carbon neutral lithium. The endeavor in the Upper Rhine region is part of the European Battery Alliance.
The company intends to use geothermal power to extract the element from the largest deposit on the continent. Cornish Lithium’s Trelavour pilot plant in Cornwall in the UK has similar zero carbon technology. However, pollution and landscape degradation issues remain.
Germany and the Czech Republic have the biggest lithium reserves in Europe, followed by Serbia
ČEZ Group and European Metals’ Cinovec project is preparing, with the help of EIT InnoEnergy, to exploit a massive lithium deposit in the Czech Republic, which has the EU’s second-largest reserves.
European Lithium said it expects operations in its Wolfsberg project in Austria to begin by 2023. Keliber gave the same provisionary date for its endeavor in Finland, as did Erris Resources and SolarWorld for their Zinnwald project in Germany. Spain, also one of the key players in the lithium industry in Europe, leans on Infinity Lithium and Valorzia Mineria’s San Jose project, which could start operations by 2025.