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Prospects for lithium mining in Europe

09 july 2024

The European Union, the world’s main purveyor of the energy transition, is in dire need of the mineral raw materials required to ensure it. At the same time, the EU does its best to avoid dependency on China, Russia and other traditional suppliers amid the difficult geopolitical situation. In this regard, some EU countries have begun to revive the geological exploration and mining industries.

In November 2023, the European Council and the European Parliament have reached a preliminary agreement to adopt the European Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA). The document contains a list of 34 raw materials critical for the economy of the European Union, and 17 strategic raw materials, including lithium, copper, cobalt, bauxite, platinum group metals, rare metals, rare earth elements, and graphite. Among other things, the document involves increasing the domestic production of critical raw materials in the EU countries by identifying the strategic projects that receive preferences in the form of speeding up the procedures to obtain permits and financing.

This article is about lithium, a metal that is in the list of raw materials that are both strategic and critical for the European Union. The main projects for the development of lithium deposits in the European Union countries, as well as Great Britain and Serbia, are considered.

The Jadar deposit was discovered by Rio Tinto in 2004 near the city of Loznica in western Serbia. The deposit is confined to the lacustrine sedimentary strata, and lithium mineralization is represented by the jadarite mineral - lithium and sodium borosilicate, which was first discovered at this deposit.

Rio Tinto carried out a set of geological exploration works as part of the project and completed a Preliminary Feasibility Study in 2020. The deposit’s indicated resources were estimated at 85 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 1.76 percent (3.7 mn tons of lithium carbonate equivalent, LCE), and inferred resources were estimated at 58 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 1.87 percent (2.7 mn tons of LCE). As part of the project, the plans were to build an underground mine, refinery, and chemical plant for the production of battery-grade lithium carbonate with a capacity of 58 thousand tons per year. In addition, the company planned to produce boric acid and sodium sulfate.

After completing the Preliminary Feasibility Study, Rio Tinto began the Feasibility Study stage of the project and allocated $200 mn for this purpose, but early in 2022, the Serbian government revoked the company’s mining license due to mass protests caused by possible negative impact of the future enterprise on the environment. In total, Rio Tinto planned to spend $2.4 bn on the project.

In January 2024, the Serbian government announced its intention to resume cooperation with Rio Tinto on the implementation of the Jadar project, and in June, the country’s President Aleksandar Vučić announced his readiness to give a ‘go-ahead’ for the project due to receiving ‘new guarantees’ from Rio Tinto and the European Union regarding the safety of the project for the environment. Vučić also announced that the expected date for commissioning of the future enterprise was 2028.

In the Czech Republic, the Australian company European Metals Holdings jointly with the Czech ČEZ a.s. (49 and 51 percent, respectively) are implementing a project to develop the Cinovec lithium deposit located 100 km northwest of Prague, on the border between the Czech Republic and Germany. The deposit is confined to the Bohemian granite massif in the metallogenic province of the Erzgebirge. The raw materials for lithium are granites containing zinnwaldite, a lithium mineral of the mica group. The geological exploration in the European Metals’ project area started back in 2014. In 2015, Scoping Study was carried out at the deposit, and in 2019, the Preliminary Feasibility Study was completed. In 2022, the company updated the Preliminary Feasibility Study with resource estimates.

According to the updated Preliminary Feasibility Study, the measured resources of the Cinovec deposit were 53.3 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 0.48 percent (0.64 mn tons of LCE), its indicated resources were 360.2 mn tons with 0.44 percent of Li2O (3.88 mn tons of LCE), and inferred resources were 294.7 mn tons with 0.39 percent of Li2O (2.87 mn tons of LCE). In addition, tin resources were assessed at the deposit.

The minimum lifespan of the Cinovec project was estimated at 25 years, with the possibility of increasing it to 100 years. The plans are to annually produce 29.4 thousand tons of battery-grade lithium hydroxide at the deposit. In April 2024, European Metals announced the successful completion of the pilot program to produce lithium hydroxide at the chemical plant from the raw materials mined at the deposit.

The company also published the main parameters for the development of the deposit - net present value was expected to be $1.94 bn and internal rate of return was expected to be 36.3 percent. Capital expenditures for construction were estimated at $643.8 mn. The deposit is located in a well-developed area with developed infrastructure, and two railway lines are close to it (5 km and 8 km away), and there is a 22 kV power line in the area.

European Metals does not indicate the year when they start mining at the Cinovec project. According to Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, ideally, this will happen in 2026. However, European Metals has not yet (as of June 2024) published the results of the Definitive Feasibility Study for the project, which it planned to complete in February 2023, and then postponed its completion to the first quarter of 2024.

in October 2022, the French mining company Imerys S.A. specializing in mining non-metallic mineral resources, started the development of a lithium deposit in the department of Allier in south-central France. As a result of geological exploration carried out since 2015, the deposits of lepidolite granites (lepidolite is a lithium-containing mineral from the mica group) were discovered in the area of ​​the Beauvoir kaolin deposit, previously developed by Imerys.

The new project was called EMILI (French: Exploitation de MIca Lithinifère par Imerys (Imery lithium mica project)). The project’s ore resources were estimated at 116.7 mn tons with an average Li2O content of 0.9 percent (2.6 mn tons of LCE). Underground mine (under a kaolin quarry) is set to be commissioned in 2028, the mine life is projected at 25 years. In addition to the construction of an underground mine, the project involves:

• construction of ​​a concentration plant on the project site with an annual capacity of 2 mn tons of ore, with the lepidolite concentrate as a final product;

• construction of a railway loading terminal at La Fontchambert (about 15 km away from the project area), the concentrate will be transported to the loading terminal by a pipeline;

• construction of a conversion plant near the city of Montluçon (about 50 km by railway from the station currently being designed) with an annual capacity for processing of about 330 thousand tons of lepidolite concentrate, and production of about 34 thousand tons of lithium hydroxide (which will ensure the manufacture of 700 thousand electric vehicles).

The investments in the project are estimated at over €1 bn.

Imerys jointly with British Lithium owns another European lithium project located in the county of Cornwall in the south of Great Britain. The project that has been underway since 2018 is called Imerys British Lithium. Lithium mineralization is associated with zinnwaldite in granites. In May 2023, an estimate of inferred resources of ore was published equal to 160.8 mn tons with an average Li2O content of 0.536 percent (about 2.15 mn tons of LCE). Currently, the geological exploration is in progress at the project area to facilitate the Preliminary Feasibility Study and estimate ore and lithium reserves.

In 2021, the world’s first integrated pilot plant for processing lithium-containing granites, beneficiating the zinnwaldite concentrate and producing battery-grade lithium carbonate was built and put into operation on the project site. The recovery rate of lithium from the concentrate exceeded 90 percent, which is a very good figure (the recovery rate of lithium from spodumene concentrates is usually from 60 to 70 percent).

The company expects that after the start of mining scheduled for the end of 2028, the enterprise will produce 20.8 thousand tons of lithium carbonate annually for 25 years at an open-pit mine. The company does not disclose the economic aspects of the future enterprise. According to media reports, capital expenditures for the project are estimated at €660 mn ($720.5 mn).

There are two other lithium projects in the UK county of Cornwall: Trelavour and United Downs.

The Trelavour project is implemented by the British company Cornish Lithium that began geological surveys in 2018 in the previously developed kaolin clay deposit. The research confirmed the presence of lithium-containing micas in granites.

Based on the results of drilling operations in 2021, the company estimated the inferred resources of ore at 51.7 mn tons with an average Li2O content of 0.24 percent, which is equal to 300 thousand tons of LCE. In 2022, the Scoping Study of the project was completed, and the following parameters were determined:

• annual production: 7.8 thousand tons of lithium hydroxide;

• the deposit life: 20 years by open pit mining;

• net present value after taxes: $318.6 mn (at an 8-percent discount rate);

• internal rate of return: 24.4 percent;

• initial capital expenditures: $243.8 mn;

• payback period: 3.8 years (from the year of starting the mining).

The Trelavour project is located in the area with well-developed infrastructure, including power lines, roads, railways, and access ways to sea ports.

Currently, the company is carrying out the geological exploration to calculate lithium reserves, assess the prospects for the possible recovery of associated components (cesium and rubidium), as well as conducting environmental surveys and designing a pilot plant for the production of mica concentrate and the recovery of lithium hydroxide from it by leaching using the technology under the license acquired by Cornish Lithium from the Australian company Lepidico. The Trelavour mine is scheduled to be put into operation in 2026.

The United Downs project involves the production of lithium in a fundamentally different way - from geothermal brine. The project is being implemented by Geothermal Engineering Limited, a British leader in geothermal energy generation. The tests carried out by the company showed a high concentration of lithium, 340 ppm, in geothermal brine from deep production wells drilled in the United Downs’ project areas. By late 2024, Geothermal Engineering intends to produce about 100 tons of LCE per year using the Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) method. By 2026, the capacity is set to increase up to 1 thousand tons per year, and up to 12 thousand tons by 2030. The company has already received funding for making the installations with a capacity of 100 tons of LCE per year estimated at £1.8 mn (about $2.3 mn) with the money coming from the Automotive Transformation Fund.

Another project to extract lithium from geothermal brine is being developed by Vulcan Energy Resources in the Upper Rhine Graben, Germany, and it is called Zero Carbon Lithium. The first phase of the project involves pumping up the geothermal brine from existing wells and the recovery of lithium using the Adsorption-Type Direct Lithium Extraction (A-Dle) method for 30 years. The lithium reserves at the deposit were estimated at 318 thousand tons of LCE in the proved reserves category and 251 thousand tons of LCE in the probable reserves category. For the first 15 years, the enterprise is expected to operate on the basis of proved reserves, and for the next 15 years - on the basis of probable reserves. The geothermal brine will be sent to a lithium extraction plant in Landau (near the brine pumping site), and the lithium chloride recovered from the geothermal brine will be sent to a chemical plant in Frankfurt that is being designed now, where 24 thousand tons of battery-grade lithium monohydrate hydroxide will be produced annually. The Vulcan Energy Resources company has raised €40 mn ($43 mn) in private funding for the first phase of the project. Launching the project is scheduled for the end of 2025.

In Germany, a lithium deposit connected with a granite massif near Dresden is also under development. The Zinnwald project is being implemented by British Zinnwald Lithium Plc that carried out two drilling programs in the project area in 2012–2018 and 2022–2023. Based on the results of the second drilling program, the company significantly increased the deposit’s resources that were assessed in 2024. The measured and indicated resources of the deposit were estimated at 193.5 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 0.478 percent (2.283 mn tons of LCE), and inferred resources were estimated at 33.3 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 0.461 percent (379 thousand tons of LCE). Lithium mineralization is represented by zinnwaldite micas in albite granites and greisens (greisen is a metasomatic rock formed at the contacts of granites and host rocks).

At present, the Zinnwald Lithium company is carrying out a Bankable Feasibility Study for the project based on the results of the latest resource assessment and expects to complete it late in 2024. In accordance with earlier data, the plans were to annually produce 12 thousand tons of battery-grade lithium hydroxide from the ores of the deposit for 35 years; this figure should increase significantly now.

In developing the process flow for concentration of ores from the Zinnwald deposit, Zinnwald Lithium has been cooperating with the Finnish company Metso since 2022. The target timeline for the project’s development was not announced.

In Austria, the Australian European Lithium Ltd. is preparing the Wolfsberg lithium deposit located 20 km away from the city of Wolfsberg for commissioning. The deposit contains rare-metal pegmatites and the main ore mineral is spodumene. In 2021–2022, European Lithium carried out the reserve estimation and resource assessment for the deposit. The proved and probable reserves of the deposit were estimated at 11.5 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 0.64 percent (about 180.5 thousand tons of LCE). Measured and indicated resources of the deposit, including the reserves, amounted to 9.743 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 1.03 percent (about 248 thousand tons of LCE), and inferred resources were estimated at 3.138 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 0.9 percent (about 70 thousand tons of LCE).

In accordance with the Definitive Feasibility Study (DFS), the plan is to construct an underground mine at Wolfsberg with an annual capacity of 780 thousand tons of ore. The design capacity for the lithium monohydrate hydroxide production is 8.8 thousand tons per year.

The key economic indicators of the project are as follows:

• net present value after taxes: $1,504 mn (at a 6-percent discount rate);

• internal rate of return: 33.3 percent;

• initial capital expenses: $873 mn;

• payback period: 6.75 years.

The construction of a concentration plant for the spodumene concentrate production is planned on the project sites. After that, the concentrate will be sent to the hydrometallurgical plant that is under design and will be built in the industrial zone of Wolfsberg; its end product will be lithium hydroxide monohydrate. The area has all the necessary infrastructure to set up the production facilities. Commissioning of the enterprise is scheduled for the end of 2026 and the anticipated lifespan is 14.6 years.

The South African mining company Sibanye-Stillwater Ltd. jointly with the Finnish Minerals Group, Finland, are implementing the Keliber project near the city of Kokkola in western Finland. The project involves the development of a cluster of five lithium deposits using a combined (open-pit and underground) mining. At the first stage, from 2026 through 2032, open-pit mining of the Syväjärvi and Rapasaari deposits is set to be used. The aggregate depletion period of all five deposits is expected to be 16 years.

The Definitive Feasibility Study (DFS) of the project was completed in 2019. Mineral reserves of the deposits were estimated at 9.7 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 0.96 percent (about 230 thousand tons of LCE), and mineral resources, including the reserves, were estimated at 19.7 mn tons with an average Li2O content of 1.21 percent (about 590 thousand tons of LCE). Lithium mineralization at the deposits is represented by spodumene in rare-metal pegmatites.

The construction of an ore-processing plant for the spodumene concentrate production and a lithium refinery in Kokkola is planned, designed for the production of about 15 thousand tons of lithium hydroxide monohydrate per year. The enterprises are under construction, their commissioning is scheduled for the first quarter of 2025. Initial capital expenses are estimated at €656 mn.

Portuguese Lusorecursos Portugal Lithium, S.A. implements the Romano project in the north of Portugal in the municipality of Boticas where tin and columbite-tantalite ores were mined in the mid-20th century. The deposit has the pegmatites containing lithium in the form of petalite, a rare mineral, as well as lithium aluminosilicate, and spodumene. According to the Lusorecursos’ data, the indicated resources of the deposit amount to 15.6 mn tons of ore with an average Li2O content of 0.95 percent (about 367 thousand tons of LCE), and inferred resources are 14.4 mn tons with an average Li2O content of 1.05 percent (about 374 thousand tons of LCE).

The plans are to develop the deposit in two stages using open and underground mining. A concentration plant and a hydrometallurgical plant are set to be constructed in the project area, with their final product to be battery-grade lithium hydroxide. The construction of the mining enterprise with a design capacity of 1.5 mn tons of ore per year is scheduled to start in 2025 and it will be put into operation in 2027. The annual capacity of the hydrometallurgical plant will be 18 thousand tons of lithium hydroxide per year. The investments in the project are estimated at €650 mn.

In Spain, the Australian Infinity Lithium Corporation Limited jointly with the Spanish Valoriza Mineria S.A. (75 and 25 percent, respectively) are developing the San José deposit near the city of Cáceres in western Spain that was developed for tin in the 1960s. Lithium mineralization at the deposit is represented by micas (zinnwaldite), as well as rare minerals of the amblygonite-montebrasite series (lithium and aluminum phosphates).

According to the results of a resource assessment carried out in 2018, the indicated resources of the San José deposit amount to 59 mn tons with an average Li2O content of 0.63 percent (about 919 thousand tons of LCE), and inferred resources are 52 .2 mn tons with an average Li2O content of 0.59 percent (about 762 thousand tons of LCE). The Scoping Study carried out on the basis of this assessment assumes the following parameters:

• the underground mine life: 26 years;

• ore mining and processing capacity: 2 mn tons per year;

• lithium hydroxide production capacity at the hydrometallurgical plant currently being designed: 33.27 thousand tons per year;

• net present value after taxes: $2,870 mn (at an 8-percent discount rate);

• internal rate of return: 21.3 percent;

• initial capital expenses: $1,544 mn;

• payback period: 4.2 years.

In November 2023, Infinity Lithium received a project grant of €18.8 mn from the Spanish government. In June 2024, the project received the status of a business project of regional importance. The enterprise is scheduled to be put into operation at the end of 2026.

Based on the main projects’ data summarized in the table below (Table 1) for convenience, the conclusions can be made that if they are implemented, the situation with lithium resources for the European Union will be quite favorable, and by 2028, they will be able to ensure the production of more than 250 thousand tons of lithium carbonate equivalent annually. According to various estimates, the annual demand of the EU countries for lithium by 2030 will be 380400 thousand tons of LCE, and it should be taken into account that the construction of several chemical plants for the production of lithium products from imported raw materials is expected in Europe.

The main advantage of the European projects for the development of lithium deposits (unlike, say, the Russian ones) is a well-developed external surrounding infrastructure, and in some cases, internal infrastructure (when lithium-containing ore deposits are discovered within previously mined deposits). At the same time, the location of the project areas close to the populated areas may be negatively perceived by local communities due to the threat to the environment, even taking into account the underground mining method, as happened with the Jadar project, the largest in Europe.

Anastasia Smolnikova for Rough & Polished


Table 1: Major projects for the development of lithium deposits in the European countries

Project, country

Company

Type of deposit

(ore mineral)

Final product

Life of mine

Type of mining

Capital expenditure

Year of commissioning

Type

Capacity, 1000 tons per year

Capacity in LCE, 1000 tons per year

Jadar, Serbia

Rio Tinto

sedimentary deposit (jadarite)

lithium carbonate

58

58

40

underground

$2.4 bn

2028

EMILI, France

Imerys

granites (lepidolite)

lithium hydroxide

34

29.9

25

underground

€1 bn

($1.081 bn)

2028

San José, Spain

Infinity Lithium Corp., Valoriza Mineria

granites (zinnwaldite, amblygonite, montebrasite)

lithium hydroxide

33.3

29.3

26

underground

$1,544 bn

2026

Cinovec, Czech

European Metals Holdings, CEZ

granites (zinnwaldite)

lithium hydroxide

29.4

25.9

25

(up to 100)

underground

$643.8 mn

2026

Zero Carbon Lithium, Germany

Vulcan Energy Resources

geothermal brine

lithium hydroxide

24

21.1

30

by boreholes

n/a*

2025

Imerys British Lithium, Great Britain

Imerys, British Lithium

granites (zinnwaldite)

lithium carbonate

20.8

20.8

25

open-pit

$720.5 mn

2028

Romano, Portugal

Lusorecursos Portugal Lithium

rare metal pegmatites (petalite, spodumene)

lithium hydroxide

18

15.8

20

open-pit + underground

€650 mn

($702.8 mn)

2027

Keliber, Finland

Sibanye-Stillwater, FMG

rare metal pegmatites (spodumene)

lithium hydroxide

15

13.2

16

open-pit + underground

€656 mn

($709.3 mn)

2025

Zinnwald, Germany

Zinnwald Lithium

granites (zinnwaldite)

lithium hydroxide

min 12

10.6

min 35

underground

n/a

n/a

Wolfsberg, Austria

European Lithium

rare metal pegmatites (spodumene)

lithium hydroxide

8.8

7.7

15

underground

$873 mn

2026

Trelavour, Great Britain

Cornish Lithium

granites (lithium mica)

lithium hydroxide

7.8

6.9

20

open-pit

$243.8 mn

2026

United Downs, Great Britain

Geothermal Engineering

geothermal brine

lithium carbonate

0.1

(up to 12)

0.1

(up to 12)

min 6

by boreholes

n/a**

2024

Note: Compiled according to the company’s data; n/a – no data; conversion of euros into US dollars at the average ECB rate for 2023; * – raised funding is $43 mn, ** – raised funding is $2.3 mn.