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Crass Idiocy About European Lithium Mining

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So, yes, lots of electric cars, this means lots of lithium is needed for the batteries. We’ve not really got another technology to replace that specific use profile. Zinc, perhaps Vanadium, batteries might do better on the grid but for something we can move around lithium is it. Yes, fuel cells might well do better and so on but for EVs Li is where it’s at.

So, people are prospecting. They’re prospecting in my back yard even – OK, a bit north:

Savannah is just one of several mining companies with an eye on the rich lithium deposits of central and northern Portugal. The sudden excitement surrounding petróleo branco (“white oil”) derives from an invention rarely seen in these parts: the electric car. Lithium is a key active material in the rechargeable batteries that run electric cars. It is found in rock and clay deposits as a solid mineral, as well as dissolved in brine. It is popular with battery manufacturers because, as the lightest dense metal, it stores a lot of energy for its weight.

OK. Personally I’m not convinced that hard rock mining is the way to go but then I’m not planning this sector, just observing. The correct answer will, as always, be emergent from what people try out.

But this reporting on the varied attempts to fill the need is absurd:

The lithium-ion batteries in everyday devices are typically small and fiddly, so to make his venture viable, Hanisch decided to start big, with used electric car batteries (which each contain about 8kg of reusable lithium). He pointed out of the window, where several recently delivered samples were piled up on the tarmac outside the factory next door, each the size of a chunky mattress.

Do people never proof their work? A chunky mattress is unlikely to contain 8 kg of Li. 80 kg maybe. But 8 is nonsense.

Currently, two main options exist: either heat the components to about 300C to evaporate the lithium, or apply acids and other reducing agents to leach it.

Li boils at 1,300 oC. So 300 isn’t going to evaporate it.

Both approaches are complicated by lithium’s extreme volatility (it is prone to exploding) and its amalgamation with other metals (which are added in for better conductivity).

It’s the metal which is volatile, the salts – and the batteries are made of the salts – aren’t. They can catch fire, sure, but that’s something different.

And here comes the real stupidity:

The European commission still wants a lithium industry to call its own. In September, the Slovak diplomat and a commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič publicly endorsed Portugal’s plans as “necessary” for the automotive sector. What’s more, the European Investment Bank would be on hand to help, he promised. His comment chimed with the launch of a new EU strategy on raw materials, which, among other goals, seeks to increase Europe’s lithium supply 18-fold by 2030, while reducing Europe’s dependence on third-party countries.

Oh, that’s nice. Why?

Sourcing lithium in its own back yard not only offers Europe simpler logistics and lower prices,

Eh? Why would European production of Li be cheaper than production in other areas of the world?

Just as an example there’s tin in those same mountains (Li and Sn are often found in conjunction) and it’s vastly cheaper to go the tin from Bangka and Belitung instead. Which is why near all the European tin mines are closed.

And why do we go get lithium from those vast deposits in Oz or those salt flats in Latin America? Because those are the cheap places to get it from. Hard rock mining in an expensive part of the world is not, on the face of it, cheaper.

Ignoring the economics of mining is rarely a useful manner of making money. After all, if these European deposits are cheaper then why aren’t we mining them already? Why does it require a rise in demand – and thus price – to make them economic?

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8 COMMENTS

  1. “What’s more, the European Investment Bank would be on hand to help, he promised. ”

    Oh, right, another feeding trough for the ruling classes before the tumbrils get them.

  2. It is popular with battery manufacturers because, as the lightest dense metal, it stores a lot of energy for its weight.

    Journo fails in science (again). I’ve no idea what the word ‘dense’ is doing there, Li is simply the lightest metal* (unless you’re an astronomer and think oxygen is a metal) – but that’s not why it’s used in batteries, it’s because it’s the top of the electrochemical series. Before Li-ion, batteries were made from nickel and cadmium, not particularly light materials.

    * solid lithium will float on water – don’t try this at home, children

    • Yes, the energy density is due to the “distance” between the anode and cathode, the ideal electric cell would be Hydrogen1-Tennessine117.

      • A quick skim through an old Chemistry book shows that the “best” battery would be a Fluorine-Strontium one, giving 7.1v per cell. Good luck containing it. 🙂

  3. The drive for EVs would dramatically raise the demand for Lithium and hence raise the price. Possibly by enough to make European mining worth doing.

  4. Being an Aussie, I naturally believe Oz is a reasonably reliable supplier of lithium, or anything else it exports. But if the Europeans wish to spend their money on ensuring their lithium supplies that’s their business.

    However, if they’re really worried, I’d say they’d do better to back the research on extraction of lithium from seawater. If this can be made practicable, there’ll be no need to concern themselves until the sun turns into a red giant and the oceans evaporate. (sciencemag.org/news/2020/07/seawater-could-provide-nearly-unlimited-amounts-critical-battery-material#:~:text=The%20world’s%20oceans%20contain%20an,roughly%200.2%20parts%20per%20million.&text=But%20it%20also%20pulls%20in,abundant%20in%20seawater%20than%20lithium.)

  5. As a startup and turnaround consultant my first question was always, “What business is the client actually in?” Consulting engineers for example are in the labour broking business. So are language schools. These guys are not in the lithium business. They are in the dot com business. The underlying technology doesn’t have to work. It merely has to generate large amounts of VC, to fund a profligate lifestyle.

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