Lithium tipped for EU list of critical raw materials

A view of the production of Taycan electric sports cars at an assembly line at the German car manufacturer Porsche in Stuttgart, Germany, 05 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK]

The soft, silvery-white alkali metal is expected to enter the EU list of critical raw materials later this year because of its strategic importance to the automotive industry, EURACTIV has learned.

Lithium will be added to the list alongside two or three other metals, according to an EU source with knowledge of the matter, who spoke to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity.

“Europe will require massively higher volumes of lithium for its battery revolution, but is highly dependent on supplies from elsewhere in the world,” says Guy Thiran from Eurometaux, a trade association.

Increasing home-grown production will strengthen Europe’s resilience to trade disruptions, he said, backing new initiatives to develop lithium mining and recycling activities in the EU.

Policymakers have stepped up plans to mass-produce batteries in Europe as the car industry rolls out new fully-electric models to comply with stricter CO2 emission standards.

Among the materials used in Lithium-ion battery cells, three are currently listed as critical raw materials by the European Commission: cobalt, natural graphite and silicon metal.

Although lithium is not in short supply, it has “an increasing relevancy for the Li-ion battery industry,” the EU executive said in a report on raw materials for battery applications, published in 2018.

“Recognising the strategic role of lithium for the future European economy, and zero-emission mobility is important,” said Pia Alina Lange, head of communications at Recharge, a trade association bringing together manufacturers of advanced rechargeable and lithium batteries.

Race for lithium illustrates EU drive for 'strategic' raw materials

The European Union is accelerating plans to develop lithium mining and refining capacity on its territory as part of a concerted EU push to develop a strategic value chain for manufacturing electric car batteries inside Europe.

Lithium supply currently not at risk

The EU’s list of critical raw materials was last updated in 2017. Raw materials that make it on the list are either considered highly important to the EU economy or have a high risk of supply shortages.

In the case of lithium, it is the first criteria that prevailed.

“Lithium would not fall under the definition of a classical CRM because it is neither scarce nor is the supply disrupted or at risk,” Lange said.

Indeed, European industries currently make a “relatively low” use of lithium at the moment, she says. What’s more, Europe has its own lithium reserves that are available for industrial-scale extraction, she points out.

“Having said so, lithium does play a significant role in the climate-neutrality and technological leadership objectives of the EU,” Lange told EURACTIV in emailed comments.

“It is an important raw material for the production of (EV) batteries, one of the six strategic value chains for the European economy. And with the European Battery Alliance, the European Union has clearly put a European battery manufacturing industry at the heart of its industrial strategy,” she said.

As the electrification of road transport gained momentum, the Commission decided to launch a European Battery Alliance in 2017, bringing together automakers, chemical and engineering executives in a bid to compete with Asian and American manufacturers.

“We are working a lot on batteries and the discussions there focus on cobalt, lithium, nickel and copper,” said Maroš Šefčovič, the Slovak commissioner who was then leading the Commission’s flagship energy union project.

EU’s Sefcovic: Real risk that ‘raw materials become the new oil’

Europeans have to be “very vigilant” that today’s dependency on imported oil and gas is not replaced by dependency on lithium, cobalt, copper and other raw materials that industries need for the green transition, Maroš Šefčovič told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Mining and recycling

The European Commission was expected to update its list of critical raw materials in March, but publication was delayed because of more urgent priorities related to the coronavirus outbreak.

Still, Lange questioned whether lithium’s classification as a critical raw material is the right way forward, citing Europe-based lithium reserves that can be opened for raw material extraction.

She also pointed to the future potential of recycling when it comes to EV batteries, saying the first wave of used batteries will start coming back in about 10 years.

“With the accelerated shift to zero-emission mobility, used batteries can and will play a much bigger role in secondary raw materials,” Lange said.

For Eurometaux, the EU should support plans to develop mining in Europe as a way to strengthen the bloc’s resilience to potential supply disruptions.

“That will require two main actions: investing into new sustainable mining opportunities and establishing the business case for recycling lithium from waste batteries,” said Guy Thiran.

“We want to see a real ambition shift from Europe for all the metals required in higher volumes by the climate transition,” he said.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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