Lithium: France will soon be the world’s second largest producer, despite the environmental danger
Announced by the French industrial minerals group Imerys, the large-scale « Emili » project aims to drastically reduce Europe’s dependence on China and Australia for lithium, which is now called white gold. . Indeed, from 2025 the only new vehicles that can be sold will necessarily be electric or hybrid, this new French mine is therefore presented as a crucial issue.
Thus, the government actively supports the French industrialist in his approach. The French Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, believes that “this project, exemplary in environmental and climatic terms, will drastically reduce our lithium import needs”.
Lithium in “very attractive quantity”
Alessandro Dazza, managing director of Imerys, affirms that the « concentrations and quantities » of lithium have been deemed « very attractive » in Beauvoir (municipality of Echassières, in the Allier), which since 1850 has hosted a quarry producing 30,000 tons of kaolin for porcelain or tiles.
Map showing the distribution of lithium resources in France and deposits with low or high potential, according to a BRGM report from December 2018. AFP / Sylvie HUSSON, Anibal MAIZ CACERES and Sabrina BLANCHARD
They estimate the capacity of this “deposit around one million tonnes of lithium oxide”, which would produce “34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year from 2028 for a period of at least 25 years. and “equip the equivalent of 700,000 electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries” per year, according to Imerys. Such production would directly place France in second place among world lithium producers, behind Australia (40,000 tonnes in 2020) and ahead of Chile (18,000 tonnes in 2020), according to the United States Geological Institute ( USGS).
The group estimates its production costs “between 7 and 9 euros per kilo”, excluding initial investment, which would guarantee “an interesting return on investment”. Imerys also promises the eventual employment of 1,000 people directly and indirectly in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, on two sites: the underground mica extraction mine containing lithium, at a depth of 75 to 350 meters, and a mineral purification and lithium hydroxide processing plant, less than 100 kilometers from the mine.
On the Beauvoir mine site, the lithium concentration is around 0.9 to 1%. It is therefore necessary to extract nearly 100 tons of rock to extract one ton of lithium. The question of the environmental impact therefore arises seriously: to recover all the lithium from the current deposit, it would be necessary to extract 100 million tonnes of rock. This would signify an irremediable alteration of nature, associated with soil and air pollution, as well as overconsumption of water.
Imerys defends itself against environmental fears by saying that the mine would adopt an international standard being developed, IRMA, aimed at reducing toxic discharges and minimizing water consumption. They also announce that the exploitation will be done underground, which according to them will minimize the dust and the transport of the rocks should be done by pipeline and railway to avoid trucks between the mine and the industrial site. As for the CO2 emissions generated by the operation, the group estimates them at 8 kilos per ton of lithium, against 16 to 20 kilos in Australia and China, according to him.
However Antoine Gatet, vice-president of France nature environment (FNE) confides to AFP his annoyance about these ecological goodwill: “We must stop with the myth of the clean mine! It’s all about communication and flan. We don’t know how to extract material from the subsoil in a clean way, because a mine always involves a large chemical processing plant nearby, which leads to exploitation, and ultimately water pollution and significant quantities of waste that we do not know how to manage. Are we really ready to sacrifice part of the water and the ecosystem of the Massif Central to make electric cars at 40,000 euros that very few people can afford? »
In the end, lithium is defended by the CEO of Imerys as a means « to help Europe to decarbonize ». However, according to the Green media, the pollution resulting from the production of electric vehicles is not to be neglected. This gold is probably not as white as its name might suggest.