Demand for critical raw materials (base metals, materials and rare-earth elements) is set to increase considerably over the coming years due to the ecological, energy and digital transitions , as well as increased use in other industries and key sectors such as space, defence and even data transmission and storage. Mid-November, the European Council and Parliament adopted a provisional agreement reinforcing the objectives of the specific legislation proposed by the Commission last March(1). Where are we today? And, more specifically, what is the situation with lithium?
What do we really class as “critical materials”?
Materials are considered critical if they are subject to a high level of supply risk: resources are highly concentrated and affordable quality substitute materials are scarce or non-existent. The EU has identified 34 critical raw materials, 17 of which are strategic: lithium, heavy or light rare-earth elements (REE), silicon metal, gallium, manganese, germanium, natural graphite, bismuth, titanium metal, boron, platinum group metals, tungsten, cobalt, copper and nickel.
High levels of dependency
The EU is highly dependent on these materials. For example, it sources 100% of its heavy REEs from China, 98% of its boron from Türkiye and 71% of its platinum from South Africa. China also provides much of the Union’s supply of baryte, bismuth, gallium, germanium, magnesium, natural graphite, scandium, light REEs, tungsten and vanadium, and boasts refining capacity for most materials, even those not readily extractable from its subsoil. Latin American countries also play their part, with Chile accounting for 79% of EU lithium and Brazil 92% of its niobium.
It is worth noting, however, that Spain supplies 99% of the Union’s strontium, France 76% of hafnium, Belgium 59% of arsenic, Poland 26% of coking coal and 19% of copper, Finland 38% of nickel, and Norway 33% of silicon metal. Furthermore, a vast deposit of REEs was discovered earlier this year near a large iron mine in Sweden. While attention has already turned to extracting phosphorus, REEs and fluorine using new, circularity–promoting technology , it may be another 10-15 years before they can be mined and commercialised.
Given its dependence on these materials, this year the EU set new objectives to be achieved by 2030. At least 10% of the Union’s annual consumption must come from extraction within the EU, at least 40% must be processed within the EU and at least 25% must come from recycling (compared to 15% in a previous version of the text). With regard to external sourcing, no more than 65% of the Union’s annual consumption of each strategic material may come from a single third country. This should help ensure key supplies for the various giga-factories currently under construction, including the Verkor and ProLogium sites in “battery valley” near Dunkirk.
Focus on lithium
While certain estimates rank aluminium, copper, nickel, silicon and manganese among the most in demand materials, and for which demand will only increase, lithium is also particularly sought-after. According to the IEA, demand for lithium tripled from 2017 to 2022 and needs could quadruple over the next ten years, As made clear in Philippe Varin’ s report: “We must exploit all of Europe’s deposits.”(2) In France, for example, from 2028 Imérys will aim to extract 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year on its kaolin quarry in Allier (Emili project). Meanwhile, from 2025 Viridian will be seeking to refine 25,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year in Bas-Rhin (CoRaLi project).
These are two of the five projects identified in the first call for projects to produce and recycle critical metals in France, launched by the French government in January 2022 after the Varin report had been submitted. The other projects focus on recycling batteries (ReLieVe project launched in Trappes in November by Eramet and Suez , with the industrial phase set to commence in 2025) and extracting critical metals contained in WEEE (Sanou Koura in the Ardennes and WEEECycling in Seine-Maritime). Other lithium extraction projects being studied include proposals by Sudmines (in Puy-de-Dôme) and Eramet (in the geothermal power plant in Alsace).
Recycling as a way forward
Recycling of critical metals is expanding and increasingly innovative solutions are emerging, despite the major challenge posed by the very small quantities of critical metals in finished products and their fusion with other materials. Lithium recycling is hindered by a very poor battery collection rate (less than 10% of existing volumes), the volatile price of lithium on the markets, and the costs of recycling still being high in comparison with primary production.
In view of this, Europe adopted, on 12 July this year, a new regulation concerning batteries and waste batteries. Besides establishing collection targets for producers, the regulation sets out targets for lithium recovery from waste batteries: 50% by the end of 2027 and 80% by the end of 2031. It also sets mandatory minimum levels of recycled content for industrial batteries, SLI (starting, lighting, and ignition) batteries and electric vehicle batteries (16% for cobalt, 85% for lead, 6% for lithium and 6% for nickel).
Current and future recycling technologies
In addition to disassembly and mechanical separation (crushing, sieving, screening, filtration), batteries can be treated by hydrometallurgy – combining extraction, dissolution and separation of materials at low temperatures using chemical reactions in aqueous solutions – or pyrometallurgy, which involves evaporation of solvents (300°C), pyrolysis of plastics and electrolysis (700°C) and melting metal oxides into alloys (1475°C) which are then refined (copper, cobalt, nickel and iron); lithium, silicon and other metals are obtained from slag.
“Black mass” is a concentrate of nickel, cobalt, manganese, lithium and graphite obtained by leaching cathode and anode materials. It can be used alongside these processes, as shown by the Eramet/Suez project, which will include an upstream black mass dismantling and production plant and a downstream hydrometallurgy plant. Orano has been testing a new process on its industrial pilots since the early November, combining pre-processing – with the purpose of obtaining an active material in powder form – and hydrometallurgy. This pre-processing allows the materials of interest to be preserved and salts of nickel, cobalt, manganese and lithium of a very high level of purity to be generated.
The “Recyclability, Recycling and Reincorporation of Materials” call for projects also identified two new battery recycling projects: one proposed by Veolia, Solvay and Renault based on hydrometallurgy, and the other backed by Mecaware and Verkor, focused solely on recycling battery gigafactory scrap, with a view to processing 6,000–8,000 tonnes per year.
“Raw materials diplomacy”
The EU is increasingly seeking to strengthen its strategic autonomy, which is evident from the exploitation of mines, amplification of refining capacity and greater emphasis on recycling and recovery. But this will not be possible unless it diversifies its supplies. Because of this, the use of so called “raw materials diplomacy” (or geopolitics) is gaining rapid traction. Last November, for example, the EU signed an agreement with a Kazakhstan mining company to facilitate two projects, related to lithium exploration and sustainable processing of tungsten. Following in the footsteps of Australia earlier in the year, France signed an agreement with Mongolia in October, with a view to better understanding and developing the country’s critical metal resources and implementing a satellite exploration project for lithium. Other more “corporate” agreements are also being rolled out. For example, at the end of June, Imérys joined forces with British Lithium in a bid to accelerate the development of the UK’s largest lithium deposit in Cornwall, with the aim of ultimately producing over 20,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per year. And, in 2024, Eramet is set to start production at a major lithium plant in Argentina.
As stated by France’s Energy Minister, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, at the inauguration of the Eramet/Suez pilot plant on 14 November: “This is important in order not to switch from one dependency to another, as critical metals are now at the heart of all strategic value chains in the zero-carbon economy.” All the new legislation seems to be moving in this direction.
1) See the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) introduced on 16 March with the Net-Zero Industry Act (NZIA), with the dual objective of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 (through ‘Fit for 55’ in 2030) and ensuring autonomy through the access and processing of critical raw materials.
2) “Report on securing the industry’s supply of mineral raw materials” submitted to the French government on 10 January 2022.