Europe makes eyes at Portugal for its lithium
With the number of electric cars expected to explode in the next five years, Europe desperately wants its battery factories and is making eyes now at Portugal for its lithium. But the locals at Seia in the green Serra da Estrela where the lithium is found, are terrified by the idea.
The American investment bank, Morgan Stanley, calculates worldwide demand for lithium to become one million tons per year. Today, production is a mere 350.000 tons. Neary all comes now from Chile, South America, holding the world’s most significant reserves with 8 million tons, and Australia with 1,5 million tons.
And it is China that owns half of the world’s lithium mining. Reportedly China has invested 4,2 billion dollars in lithium deals in the last two years. After all, they are the biggest producers of electric cars today, and have the most significant lithium-ion battery production, together with Japan, South-Korea, and the US.
That worries Europe, where battery electric vehicle (BEV) industry is still in its infancy but is expected to surge from 2020-2021 on, and peak by 2025. That’s why the EU is stressing for the need for a kind of ‘Airbus of batteries’ to join forces over country boundaries to produce them.
Finding its own lithium
But lithium is still an essential part of the kind of batteries used today, and finding its own sources of lithium could be crucial. Europe is looking at its territory, where deposits of lithium are located in Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Portugal.
Lithium can be extracted from brine pumped up from under the Atacama salt desert in Chile, or ‘mined’ in open mines like in Australia. The latter would be the scenario for Portugal too. Although only a minimum reserve of 60.000 tons is to be found there, it’s becoming economically interesting to start digging for it.
A little further to the north, in Covas do Barrosso in the province of Tras-os-Montes, the British mining company, Savannah Ressources, is already setting up mining prospection, promising ‘high concentrations of lithium’ and probably starting Europe’s first real lithium mining operation with Minas do Barosso.
260 square kilometers
Large mining corporations, like Australian Fortescue Minerals Group, want to look for lithium in an area of 260 square km around the green national park of Serra da Estrela too. It would require large open mines with a diameter of up to 800 meters, 100 to 300 meters deep.
The lithium represents 1 to 1,5% of the rock. You will need to process 100 kg of stones to get 1 kg of lithium, Dirk Harbecke, chairman of Canadian Rock Tech Lithium, says. They have their own flagship operation at Georgia Lake in Ontario.
For nature, it will be a complete disaster with deforestation of large patches for drilling operations already started. For the locals of Seia, the wake-up call suddenly became a nightmare. The open mining will not only destroy the green character of the region; it will also mean hundreds of heavy mining trucks, dust, and noise of explosions.
So, for the first time in its history, the dormant little village of Seia with its 6.000 inhabitants saw manifestations in front of the town hall with people shouting ‘Não Lithio – Seua vert!’ (no to lithium – Seia green!).
Decisions at a higher level
But the reality is that their mayor is powerless in doing anything about it, as decisions about exploitation are taken at the national level by the General Direction for Energy and Geology in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment.
They can authorize and accelerate mining projects like this, even regardless of local protests. It’s part of an initiative to look for primary materials watched over by the EU politicians closely in their strategy of ‘Improving framework conditions for extracting minerals for the EU.’