MADRID – In Spain, there are important stocks in the soil of material of potentially great economic importance to the country. The material is very important in connection with the ecological transition that the government wants to implement.
This concerns large reserves of lithium in Galicia, Castilla y León, and Extremadura. However, they are untouched. The last active operation ended in 2011. The economic importance and risk in the supply require careful consideration of the decision to exploit the resources responsibly. Nevertheless, such a decision can greatly reduce Spain’s heavy dependence on imports. If that decision is not taken, Spain will leave its stocks unused. Then the country will continue to buy raw materials from other countries that are necessary for the ecological transition. That writes senior scientist Susana Maria Timon Sanchez in Theconservation.com. She works in the Department of Geological Resources for the Ecological Transition of the Spanish Institute of Geology and Mining (IGME – CSIC)
What is lithium and why is it so important?
Lithium (Li) is a chemical element belonging to the group of alkali metals. It is the lightest and least dense metal in the solid-state at room temperature. However, it has the highest electrochemical potential of all metals. In addition, it has excellent electrical and thermal conductivity. These properties make Li difficult to replace with other elements and are essential in the development of numerous industrial applications.
- Lithium concentrates are used in the glass and ceramic industries and the continuous casting of steel.
- In the pharmacological treatment of the bipolar disorder, depression, and other pathologies, Lithium carbonate is used.
- Lithium hydroxide is an essential component in lubricants production, and is also used to purify the air of CO₂.
- The latter two compounds (lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide) are increasingly used in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles and portable electronic equipment.
Australia is the largest producer and exporter of lithium concentrates. Chile, as well as Argentina, produce most of the lithium carbonate from the exploitation of the salt pans. China – not only one of the main producers of Li, but also the main importer of this metal, both in concentrates and processed – dominates the production of refined and the majority of lithium-ion battery production worldwide.
The European Union is almost 87% dependent on imports of metal concentrates, as only Portugal has stable lithium production. In addition, the EU is completely dependent on imports of the processed compounds. This is because no country in the EU carries out refining processes. Although the EU does recycle lithium-ion batteries, this industrial recycling is currently not considered economically viable.
The EU now wants to know more about the existence and potential of European deposits. Based on that information, appropriate strategies are needed to access these resources.
Some of the most recent studies show there are 8.8 million tons of lithium oxide in the EU. This stock is spread over 27 potential deposits in 9 EU countries: the Czech Republic, Serbia, Ukraine, Spain, France, Portugal, Germany, Austria, and Finland.
Lithium in Spain
In Spain, important mineralisations of Li are located in Galicia, Castilla y León and Extremadura. However, there has been no active lithium mining operation in Spain since 2011. The most recent production came from Mina Feli, in La Fregeneda (Salamanca). Moreover, nearly 8,000 tons of white gold mineral were mined there in 2010.
Even though there are no active mines for the extraction of Li in Spain, exploration projects for this metal have been carried out in recent years. In addition, some of these projects have identified new aspects, such as the production of Li-hydroxide, this refined lithium on which we are now completely dependent.
Entire value chain of electric mobility in Spain
With the electric car and battery factories already in operation, if Spain were to use its mining resources, it could eventually establish the entire electric mobility value chain in the country. The European Commission even pointed to the importance and strategic relevance of the development of the automotive industry of these lithium mining projects in Spain.
Restrictive legislation in the way
The difficulty is that part of Spanish society from environmental considerations and the impact of mines on the natural environment rejects the implementation of new mining projects. In addition, Spain, like other EU countries, has very restrictive laws regarding the exploitation of mineral deposits. No mine will be started if there is no guarantee of the economic, social, cultural, and ecological order of the area concerned.
While recycling and reuse will be fundamental in the future, according to Timon Sanchez, the contribution of mining is necessary to meet current demand.
According to Timon Sanchez, Spanish society must decide whether to use resources responsibly in its own country and thereby reduce its heavy dependence on imports, or whether to leave its reserves unused and continue to buy high-priced raw materials necessary for the ecological transition at the price set by the international market.