Will we run out of lithium very quickly with the electric boom?

Like the new electric 4L unveiled by Renault (an SUV!), presented as one of the main attractions, the Mondial de l’auto, which is being held this week in Paris, further recognizes the turn taken from the automotive industry to electric.

This transition is even faster than we could have imagined last year. To the point of pressuring the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to review its forecasts. “The 100% electric car with battery will be the best-selling type of light vehicle in the world in 2028, three years earlier than expected, the strategy consultancy now emphasizes. They will represent 59% of sales in 2035, and not 45% as previously estimated”.

“It says everything about the scale of the task facing the automotive industry. It will have to transit to this new world in a very short time and mature immediately,” points out Mikaël Le Mouëllic, associate director at BCG.

Aerial view of the lithium mine processing plant, at the Del Carmen Salt Flat, in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile on December 26, 2016. – Photo by HO/SQM/AFP

After semiconductors, lack of lithium?

This challenge applies to the producers, but also to all the parallel industries that supply it. There have already been crises. Especially on semiconductors that are still in development. By 2030, this shortage should be a distant memory, BCG estimates. But someone else could hit hard on this date: lithium. Metal is another key element of an electric car, more precisely its battery. “In terms of storage capacity and yield, lithium batteries are the most efficient solution on the market, and probably for a long time to come,” says Emmanuel Hache, economist specializing in raw materials at IFP Energies nouvelles (IFPEN).

And that doesn’t just apply to our cars. “Lithium is a key element in any device that needs to store energy, from smartphones to laptops,” recalls Cécilia Mattéa, responsible for the dossier on “clean vehicles” at the NGO Transport & Environment (T & E).

“But it is the automotive industry that is causing demand to explode, all the more strongly as the transition to electric is taking place at a faster pace than expected”, continues Mikaël Le Mouëllic. So much so that lithium could run out very quickly. In 2030, supply should be around 4% lower than expected demand, and 24% in 2035, BCG predicts, which could slow down the energy transition.

Not the most critical of strategic metals… except in the short term?

However, lithium is not the most critical of the so-called “rare” or strategic metals, as it is present in small amounts and/or poorly distributed on Earth. “You have reserves in the United States, in Latin America, in what is called the lithium triangle – Chile-Bolivia-Argentina -, in Zimbabwe, in Australia (the world’s largest producer), in China, in Europe …” , list Emmanuel Hache, not so worried we could run out of lithium “by 2050”.

The risk of shortages is much greater in 2030. Emmanuel Hache and Mikaël Le Mouëllic explain this with a lack of investment in new production chains over the past ten years. “Again, few people had foreseen this rapid development of the electric vehicle, and there was this risk of investing heavily in a technology that could quickly become obsolete,” recalls the associate director of BCG. Result: “Five companies share 90% of the market,” continues the IFPEN economist. Two Chinese, two Americans and a Chilean. Not only does their production run the risk of no longer being sufficient very quickly, but this concentration in the hands of a few players also puts the automotive industry in an uncomfortable situation of dependency.

Ways to reduce the effects of lithium extraction…

There is a real challenge in developing new sustainable and geostrategic lithium sectors – from extraction to refining – where there are none to date, Mikaël Le Mouëllic believes at the time. Also in Europe? In recent years, several lithium deposit projects have met with strong local opposition. From the region of Loznica, in Serbia, to Tréguenncec, in southern Finistère, via Barroso, in northern Portugal or the Estramadura region in Spain.

From this problem of social acceptance in Europe, it is possible to turn it into an advantage, Cécilia Mattéa slips in… By pushing mining companies to adopt the best possible social and environmental standards. The T & E head of “clean vehicles” takes the example of the company Infinity Lithium in Estramadura, which, in the face of local disputes, “revised its copy and moved from an open-pit mining project to an underground one, which is already reducing its footprint and its impact on biodiversity. »

Protesters oppose the lithium mining project in Treguennec, Finistère, February 26, 2022.
Protesters oppose the lithium extraction mining project in Treguennec, Finistère, on February 26, 2022. – FRED TANNEAU / AFP)

In any case, this is another key problem with lithium: getting it out as cleanly as possible. The margins for progress are significant. For the extraction of lithium from brine pumped into salt lakes, as is the case in South America, Cécilia Mattéa calls “DLE” for “direct lithium extraction”. “This technique, which is currently under development, makes it possible to significantly improve the lithium recovery rate per volume of water treated, i.e. to produce more using less water, [ressource rare dans la région] “, she illustrates.

Less stress on geothermal lithium?

Another interesting clue: geothermal lithium. Geothermal power plants produce heat by converting the water in underground aquifers into steam. The idea is to use this water brought up from the depths to recover the lithium before reinjecting it into the ground. A way to kill two birds with one stone and at a lower environmental cost. “And the problem of social acceptance arises less since the geothermal power plant already exists”, notes Emmanuel Hache in passing.

The proof: Pilot production units for geothermal lithium have already emerged in Europe, particularly in Alsace, with the French mining group Eramet. This geothermal lithium was only supposed to cover a few percent of lithium needs. “It doesn’t matter, it’s already a way to make us Europeans aware of the wealth of our underground and that we will probably have to (re)use it, certainly as cleanly as possible”, believes Emmanuel Hache, who makes it one of the most important challenges of the energy transition.

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