EU adds lithium to critical raw materials list

Lithium-rich claystone at surface at Cypress Lithium's Clayton Valley Project. Credit: Cypress Lithium.

The European Union has added lithium, used in batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs), to a list of critical materials as part of a strategy to reduce its reliance on imports.

The group of 27 nations will need about 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt for EV batteries and energy storage by 2050, analysts estimate. The EU’s demand for rare earths, used in high-tech devices and military applications, is predicted to increase 10-fold over the same period.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said on Thursday that the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted the world’s increasing reliance on electronics and technology for remote work, education and communication.

As a result, shortages of the key elements needed to manufacture those items threaten to undermine critical industries and expose the bloc to supply squeezes from China and other resource-rich countries, the Commission said.

“We have to drastically change our approach,” vice-president Maros Sefcovic said in a statement. “We cannot allow to replace current reliance on fossil fuels with dependency on critical raw materials.”

The E.U. imports around 98% of rare earths from China. Turkey supplies 98% of its borate and Chile meets 78% of Europe’s lithium needs. South Africa provides 71% of its platinum, and Brazil supplies 85% of its niobium, a crucial part of steel alloys used in jet engines, girders and oil pipelines.

“We cannot afford to rely entirely on third countries,” European industry commissioner Thierry Breton said. “By diversifying the supply from third countries and developing the EU’s own capacity for extraction, processing, recycling, refining and separation of rare earths, we can become more resilient and sustainable.”

The Belgium-based body, which first drew up an inventory of critical raw materials in 2011, in response to soaring commodity prices, also added bauxite and titanium — used in aerospace and for orthopaedic implants — and strontium — an ingredient for EV magnets — to the list. The body also eliminated helium from the group of 30 materials.

As part of the strategy unveiled on Sept. 3, the European Commission vowed to create a raw-materials alliance by year-end.

The coalition will include industry members, investors, the European Investment Bank, E.U. countries and others that can help secure raw mineral supply chains.

The Commission also plans to promote the recycling of vital elements, particularly rare earths. It said that while recycling works well in Europe, less than 1% of products containing the components are actually recovered.

The activity would drive investment and innovation within Europe, it noted.

The commission also said it wants to start a partnership with Canada and interested African countries next year.

— This article first appeared in MINING.com.

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