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White gold rush: why lithium is so coveted – Business

Lithium (whose symbol is Li) is a silver-white alkali metal, which reacts strongly with air and water. It is the lightest of the solid elements and it is part, with hydrogen and helium, of the three elements generated by the big bang. Lithium is never found in its pure state naturally, but in the form of salts, oxides, or minerals. It is present in rocks, clays, or brines (as in the Atacama salar, a gigantic salt lake in Chile). Relatively rare (its presence in the earth’s crust is 20 ppm, “parts per million”), it is distributed throughout the planet, with greater accumulations in certain regions. ?

Essential element of batteries

It has long been used in medicine, especially for the treatment of bipolar disorders, in the glass and ceramics industry, metallurgy, air treatment, etc. For several years, it has been a key element in the manufacture of electric batteries, due to its lightness and its electrochemical properties.

Computers, mobile telephony and now transport, with electric vehicles: the need for batteries has exploded and the demand for lithium has soared, as have the prices of the now precious mineral. The ton traded at 6,700 dollars at the end of 2020, it reached 34,000 dollars at the end of 2021, according to the specialized consulting agency Benchmark mineral intelligence. According to the International Energy Agency, demand is expected to increase by 40% by 2040. In other words, it is a strategic raw material.

Europe dependent on producing countries

Lithium is found just about everywhere on the planet, but a few regions alone concentrate the bulk of world production: on the one hand, the South American “lithium triangle”, with Chile (near the half of the world’s exploitable reserves), Argentina and Bolivia and their brines; on the other, Australia and its mines, from which comes almost half of the world’s production in the form of ore; and to a lesser extent, the United States and China. Note that the latter also refines imported ore. More than 100,000 tons were produced in 2021, according to the American Institute for Geological Studies. And world resources would reach 89 million tons.

By 2030, Europe is aiming for 25% of global battery production (it only produced 3% in 2020). But despite extraction sites in Portugal or Serbia, and four major mining projects in the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany and Austria, the continent is far from achieving lithium independence. Europe relies on import platforms, as well as on recycling, to cover its future needs. But the exploitation of local deposits is not excluded… The Bureau of Geological and Mining Research has carried out an inventory of resources in France and estimates: “If ore processing processes are developed, France could be autonomous for lithium. »

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