Lithium from Europe – first milestones reached
5/6/2024 Energy and raw material base in transition Article

Lithium from Europe – first milestones reached

Lithium is one of the key raw materials for a successful mobility transition. To date, it has mainly been extracted in South America, Australia, and China. However, there are also deposits in Europe, for example as a component of granite. The first mine owners are already planning the production chain from mining to conversion to lithium hydroxide. European lithium from thermal water is already a reality.

A section of a periodic table shows the abbreviation for lithium. The alkali metal lithium, an important raw material for battery production, can be extracted from brine or ore rock - also in Europe.
Since the EU has been focussing more on self-sufficiency in the critical raw material lithium, a number of new mining projects have been created. Often, the production facilities for lithium hydroxide, which is needed for battery production, are also being planned. European lithium could be available from Portugal in the foreseeable future, for example. In May 2023, the Portuguese environmental authority APA approved the environmental impact assessment of a lithium mine near Covas do Barroso in northern Portugal. Large lithium deposits have been found in the German-Czech border region near Cinovec and Zinnwald. There are also lithium deposits in Extremadura in Spain, Carinthia in Austria, the Upper Rhine in south-west Germany and Alsace in France, Serbia and Ukraine that are suitable for large-scale mining.
The terraced open-cast mine at Imerys stands out white in a green landscape. The mine in Beauvoir is just one part of the Emili project in France. Facilities for processing the lithium-bearing rock are now also being built.
A French project for the extraction and integrated production of lithium for batteries is currently making particularly substantial progress. Imerys, a manufacturer of speciality minerals for industry, confirmed at the end of January 2024 that the planned conversion plant will be built in La Loue in the French department of Allier. In future, lithium hydroxide is to be extracted from lithium-containing mica from the nearby Beauvoir quarry.

Large-scale production of French lithium hydroxide from 2028

In future, the company will be able to produce up to 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year in the conversion plant, a quantity that should be sufficient to equip 700,000 electric vehicles with batteries per year. The Emili project (EMILI = Exploitation de MIca LIthinifère par Imerys; mining of lithium-containing mica by Imerys) includes all production steps from extraction to lithium production. The total investment framework amounts to one billion euros. Initially, a demonstration plant r around 400 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year is to be built. The commercial plant is scheduled to be commissioned in 2028.

According to Imerys, all steps - from mining the lithium-containing granite to the production of mica as a suspension and the production of lithium hydroxide for batteries - are as close together as possible. Lorries transport the mica to the plant in La Loue. After calcination, it is dissolved and purified. The lithium hydroxide is then crystallised. The product is in powder form.

Six visitors wearing hard hats visit the underground gallery of an old mine that is to be reused for lithium extraction. On the border between Germany and the Czech Republic near Dresden, the infrastructure of an old tin mine is to be used. The mining of zinnwaldite containing lithium is planned from 2028 at the earliest.

Lithium from old tin mines near Dresden

The fact that the high demand for lithium can even breathe new life into industrial wastelands is proving true in the German-Czech border region. Under the villages of Zinnwald and Cinovec near Dresden lies the second largest hard rock lithium deposit in the EU and the third largest in Europe, totalling over 2.6 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE). This is in the form of the ore type Zinnwaldite. The project planners at Zinnwald Lithium are assuming an annual production of 12,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide. The mine could therefore be utilised for at least 35 years, with parts of the existing underground infrastructure of the Altenberg tin mine being reused. In the best-case scenario, the project will be extended to several neighbouring areas. Mining of the deposit is scheduled to begin in 2028 at the earliest.

The distinctive feature of this project is that the extracted ore is to be mined underground over several kilometres to the processing plant. A concentrate is extracted from Zinnwaldite, which is considered more environmentally friendly than the more commonly used spodumene ore, by crushing, grinding and magnetic separation. This is calcined, i.e. made water-soluble by roasting in a rotary kiln. Water leaching produces a solution with a high lithium content. After precipitation of the potassium sulphate, it also contains, lithium carbonate is produced, which is converted into battery-grade lithium hydroxide. The by-products are also to be marketed, e.g. as a fertiliser and as a paper filler. Partner Metso in Finland is currently evaluating the process on a pilot scale.

Austrian lithium for further processing in Saudi Arabia

There are also promising lithium projects in Austria, particularly advanced in Wolfsberg (Carinthia). European Lithium is responsible for exploration there. According to European Lithium, spodumene, the primary lithium-bearing material, may be mined as early as 2025. The quantities mined should be sufficient for up to 10,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year. However, according to several Austrian sources, it will be further processed into battery-grade lithium in Saudi Arabia.

Lithium extraction plant consisting of several white containers and pipework. Vulcan started producing climate-neutral lithium chloride in April. It is produced from geothermal brine from the Upper Rhine Graben and is further processed into lithium hydroxide at Industrie Park Höchst in Frankfurt.

Green brine lithium from Landau - in parallel with deep geothermal energy

Lithium extraction in the German Upper Rhine Graben has gone one step further. At the end of November, the company Vulcan Energy Resources inaugurated the first lithium extraction plant (LEOP) on a tonne scale in Landau, Palatinate. The process has already been optimised in two pilot plants. Unlike the aforementioned mining projects, lithium is extracted in Landau from deep groundwater containing lithium salts (brine) using a sorbent developed by Vulcan. In this way, Vulcan Energy Resources aims to massively reduce the carbon dioxide footprint that is often associated with the extraction of lithium. At the same time, a geothermal power plant is to be created, i.e. renewable energy is to be extracted in addition to lithium.

The so-called lithium extraction optimisation plant (LEOP) is regarded as the preliminary stage of a commercial plant. Lithium chloride is produced here for further processing in Frankfurt's Höchst Industrial Park. The CLEOP (Central Lithium Extraction Optimisation Plant) is being built there for this purpose. It is scheduled to go into operation in summer 2024. It will use electrolysis to convert lithium chloride solution into lithium hydroxide monohydrate (LHM). This is further processed through raw and pure crystallisation and drying. The lithium hydroxide is to be used for pre-qualification tests. The by-product hydrogen chloride is sold at the chemical park.

A commercial plant is then planned, which will produce 24,000 tonnes of LHM for around 500,000 car batteries per year. In total, the lithium produced in the Upper Rhine Graben will be sufficient for up to 400 million electric vehicles.

Man with hard hat and safety waistcoat in front of 1000-litre containers. In the background Vulcan's lithium extraction plant and other people. Dr Stefan Brand, Chief Technology Officer of Vulcan, at the start of production of the LEOP, in which lithium chloride is extracted from brine.

Securing European supply and protecting the environment

The various European projects are helping to establish European value chains for the supply of lithium to the battery industry. This contributes to security of supply on the one hand and sustainability on the other. Not only the project at Vulcan in Landau, but also the other projects in Europe contribute to reducing the environmental impact. Transport routes involved in lithium extraction in remote locations such as the Atacama Desert in Chile can be radically shortened. It is also assumed that European lithium production will generally be significantly more energy-efficient than in Chile or China. Other environmental impacts can also be better controlled and regulated here. The European extraction and production of battery-grade lithium therefore offers opportunities to sustainably improve the ecological footprint of lithium batteries.


Ulla Reutner

Dr. Ulla Reutner

Chemist and freelance specialised journalist