EU toward more independence in critical raw materials

Suppose we want all new cars sold beyond 2035 in Europe to be zero-emission. In that case, it will be crucial for the EU to become more independent in mining, refining, and recycling critical raw materials like lithium, of which 21 times more will be needed.

That’s only one out of a list of +30 ‘rare earth materials’ the EU Commission wants to become less dependent on countries like China, where 98% of these raw materials used here in the industry come from. President Ursula von der Leyen presented on Thursday a new draft of the Critical Raw Materials Act that should ensure that 40% is sourced from within the EU.

Opening new mines

At least 10% of ‘strategical materials’ of which 16 out of the Commission’s list of 34 rare materials were defined as such, should be sourced from within the EU. That means opening new mines. Fifteen percent should come from recycling, which is music to the ears of Belgian specialists like Umicore and Solvay, among others. Forty percent of ores should be processed in Europe.

Important strategic projects will get access to more funding and get permits more quickly. In the case of mining, this is within 24 months, while it comes to refining or recycling within a year. The EU member states should limit the administrative nonsense to a minimum.

China acting like a ‘magnet’

Demand for lithium used in batteries for electronics and electric cars, for instance, is expected to multiply by a factor of 12 by 2030 and by 21 by 2050. Today China acts like a ‘magnet’ for rare materials by mining them through partnerships worldwide and having them refined in the homeland for further use and export.

The EU Commission wants at least 10% of the lithium extracted from European soil. Several sources of cobalt, copper, nickel, or lithium are identified in Southern Europe and Scandinavia.

But until now, it was considered cheaper to have the lithium imported than to produce it locally. There is no lithium mine active in Europe today. The Finish Keliber mine should produce Europe’s first lithium by 2024.

Becoming self-sufficient

The French EMILI project, one of the most significant lithium extraction projects in the EU at the Beauvoir site in Echassières (Allier, France), should start producing by 2028. In the Alsace, in the Northeast, Lithium de France wants to start a mine in the following years. And in Portugal, in the Barroso-Alvâo, a large project is in the pipeline, but fierce civilian protests are questioning it.

Other rare earth metals are abundantly present in Swedish Norra Kärr, enough to cover the European demand for the next fifty years. But protests by locals and environmentalists threaten to throw a wrench into the wheels. Such a mine is often a big hole in the ground, with trucks driving up and down constantly. Most people don’t want that in their backyard.

Experts believe it should become possible to become self-sufficient in most rare earth metals and lithium, except for materials like nickel or cobalt. The latter is almost exclusively mined in Congo in questionable social circumstances. But the battery industry is working on limiting the need for these materials where possible.





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