EU to launch raw materials industry alliance

Lithium mine at Salinas Grandes salt desert, Jujuy province, Argentina. [EARTHWORKS / Flickr]

The European Commission will announce the launch of a new industry alliance this week, with a view to building a complete EU supply chain for raw materials like lithium, which are seen as critical for the bloc’s digital and green transitions.

The new industry alliance will be announced on Thursday (3 September) and officially launched later this month as part of an “action plan” designed to secure Europe’s access to critical raw materials, EU sources said.

The new industry-led group will be modelled on the European Battery Alliance, which brought together more than 200 companies, governments and research organisations around the manufacturing of batteries for the auto industry.

The industry alliance will focus on metals and rare earths which are used to build magnets for batteries and all kinds of electric and electronic devices, an EU official told EURACTIV.

“We are going to imitate a little bit the European Battery Alliance. We want to create the same stakeholder industrial-based cooperative platform for raw materials,” said Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president in charge of foresight and inter-institutional relations.

“It is not only for batteries that we need these scarce raw materials, it is also for what I would call the economy of the future: we’re talking about windmills, photovoltaic panels, we’re talking about electronics and robotics,” Šefčovič told journalists during an online briefing on 27 August.

According to the Slovak EU Commissioner, the European battery alliance was “extremely useful” to highlight the “new dependencies” that European industries face when it comes to raw materials.

Peter Carlsson, the CEO of battery maker Northvolt, which is building a ‘gigafactory’ in Sweden, said European companies were struggling to secure stable supplies of critical raw materials in the battery manufacturing supply chain.

“Today, as we’re starting up the factory, we will still be dependent on a lot of suppliers from outside Europe,” Carlsson said, citing raw materials and components as part of the broader battery ecosystem. “This is where we really need to continue strengthening the European ecosystem.”

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Europe ‘self-sufficient’ on lithium by mid-2020s?

Šefčovič said he was currently preparing an “action plan for critical raw materials” in collaboration with Thierry Breton, the Commissioner in charge of the internal market.

The plan will include an updated EU list of critical raw materials, based on a foresight study by the European Commission “to determine how much of these we’re going to need in 2030 and 2050,” said the Slovak Commissioner.

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.

Lithium is tipped to feature among the raw materials that will be added to the EU list. Although lithium is not scarce, it is considered a key raw material in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries which are used in laptops, smartphones and increasingly to power electric vehicles.

Other metals that will be added to the list include bauxite, strontium, and titanium, an EU official told EURACTIV.

Lithium tipped for EU list of critical raw materials

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Top lithium producers and refiners worldwide include Australia, Chile and China but Europe “could be pretty self-sufficient already by the middle of the decade,” Šefčovič assured.

With a market share of 11%, Portugal is currently the main European producer, but its running costs are higher than those of foreign competitors. And the race to electrify Europe’s car fleet has triggered a frenzy of plans to open new mines.

In April, investors gave the green light to a lithium and tin project in the Czech Republic, which is believed to hold some of Europe’s largest deposit of the battery metal. Further deposits were discovered in Serbia, which could be the biggest on the old continent, according to Bloomberg news agency.

For Šefčovič, this puts Europe in a strong position to become self-sufficient on lithium. “We are going to invest into the raw materials that we can extract here in Europe to demonstrate that it can be done in a sustainable way and with community support,” he said.

Part of the action plan will also focus on trade agreements and sustainable sourcing of raw materials, including human rights, labour laws as well as health and safety standards.

“We are working very closely with the countries and companies which are extracting raw materials. If they want to supply these raw materials to Europe, it needs to be done in a sustainable, responsible way,” Šefčovič said, referring to environmental and labour standards.

“We believe that, with the demand which is growing in Europe, we are becoming a very important customer when it comes to lithium,” he said.

And when it comes to regulations, “we are a global superpower,” said Šefčovič who warned last year that Europe could ban imports of batteries that do not meet the bloc’s rigorous green standards. 

“Where we clearly should aspire to be a leader is on sustainability,” he said, explaining that consumers “want the whole story” on electric vehicles, including the sustainability of the minerals that are used to build the batteries. 

EU could ban dirty battery imports, says Commission VP

Batteries that do not meet rigorous green standards could be banned from the European market, Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič warned on Monday (9 December), as the EU executive approved €3.2 billion of state aid for some home-grown projects.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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