The “Emili” project, announced Monday morning by the French industrial minerals group Imerys, will help Europe get rid of its almost complete dependence on China for the lithium needed for the batteries of electric cars, supposed to be 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 mining extraction specialists in the basement of a kaolin quarry held since 2005 by the group in Beauvoir in the Allier (center), to confirm the economic interest of the mine.
With the exploitation of this deposit, “we will help Europe to decarbonize”, declared Monday to the press Alessandro Dazza, director general of Imerys, who was to receive local elected officials on the spot.
“This project, exemplary in environmental and climatic terms, will drastically reduce our lithium import needs”, welcomed the French Minister of the 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 exploitation projects, that of Imerys is the second largest, since the abandonment of the Rio Tinto project in Serbia in January, and behind that of the start-up Vulcan in Germany, based on exploitation of brine from the Rhine valley.
The “concentrations and quantities” of lithium were deemed “very attractive” in Beauvoir, which has hosted a quarry since 1850 producing 30,000 tonnes of kaolin per year for porcelain or tiling.
Since the 1960s, the Bureau of Geological and Mining Research (BRGM) had clearly identified the presence of lithium in this subsoil. But Imerys was unaware until recently of the content and therefore whether the site could be profitable.
“We estimate the deposit at around one million tonnes of lithium oxide,” Dazza said. Or “much more than what the BRGM initially thought” (320,000 tonnes).
Enough to produce “34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year from 2028 for a period of at least 25 years”, and “equip the equivalent of 700,000 electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries” per year, according to Imerys.
Which is far from negligible: the current global production of lithium carbonate or hydroxide, the two elements used in batteries, does not exceed 450,000 tonnes worldwide, according to Imerys.
And by 2040, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that it will be multiplied by 40.
At Beauvoir, “there could be more than what we estimated, we will continue the studies to see if we could have 30 or 35 years of operation”, added Mr. Dazza.
The concentration is of the order of 0.9 to 1%, that is to say that it is necessary to extract nearly 100 tons of rock to extract one ton of lithium.
The group estimates its production costs “between 7 and 9 euros per kilo excluding 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, on two sites: the underground mica extraction mine 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 –
There remain the probable environmental criticisms against this new mining project in the heart of France.
Imerys announced that the mine would adopt an international standard being developed, “IRMA”, which aims to reduce toxic discharges and minimize water consumption.
Mining will take place underground, which will minimize dust, and the rocks will be transported by pipeline and rail to avoid trucks between the mine and the industrial site. As for the emissions generated by the operation, the group estimates them at 8kg of C02 per ton of lithium, against 16 to 20kg in Australia and China, according to him.