Lithium is indispensable in today’s rechargeable batteries, from smartphones to EV batteries. With demand expected to grow exponentially over the following decades, every discovery of lithium reserves makes headline news.
Even in Belgium, where lithium is found in brine pumped up from 1 000 to 3 000 meters deep for a geothermic heat-distribution grid. Experts warn that it might be an environmentally friendlier solution, but it won’t be a gold mine.
100 mg of lithium per liter
On Saturday, geothermic company Hita, a spin-off from Flemish research institute Vito, told the newspaper De Tijd lithium was found in the warm water it pumps up in the two geothermic installations that are active in Belgium today at Vito in Mol and Janssen Pharma in Beerse.
According to former Vito researcher and co-founder and CEO of Hita in Geel, Geert De Meyer, a feasibility study backed by Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) indicates that 100 mg lithium per liter brine pumped up could be won by extracting it. That’s enough to create a possible €150 million yearly business as a byproduct.
De Meyer says a geothermic power plant in Flanders can produce this way 500 tons of lithium hydroxide (the purified form needed) per year. Hito is planning to build 30 geothermic power plants in the following years, which would account for 15 000 tons by 2050, or at least 5 000 tons by 2025, with the ten power plants that should be finished by then. Turnhout, Herentals, Lommel, and Merksplas are the next four geothermic projects to start.
At today’s lithium prices of €30 000, that could represent a business of €150 million yearly by 2030, a nice extra for a byproduct by the geothermic industry. Belgian raw material specialist Umicore, needing lithium for its anode production, and being an expert in recycling rare metals itself, could be an interested client, it acknowledges.
350 geothermic power plants in Europe
De Meyer sees opportunities for Europe to catch up on some of the arrears in critical materials compared to China and the rest of the world, with 350 geothermic power plants already active. If only half of them could produce lithium as a byproduct, says De Meyer, this could cover at least partly the huge lithium demand to some extent.
Today, global lithium production is some 915 000 tons per year, with demand expected to grow to 5,3 million tons by 2030, according to commodity firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analysis. That might look tempting from a business perspective, but it doesn’t mean ‘geothermic lithium’ will be a ‘gold mine’.
Experts warn for too much optimism. The 100 mg concentration found in the pumped-up brine in Mol is more than what was found in similar projects in the Netherlands (60 mg) but less than in Alsace (250 mg) or Italy (350 mg), Vlaio confirms.
Is commercial exploitation feasible?
In De Morgen, Professor Peter Tom Jones, head of the KU Leuven Institute for Sustainable Metals and Minerals, raises some objections to De Meyer’s calculations and fears commercial exploitation won’t be realistic. He says the concentration of 100 ppm (parts per million) of lithium found in the brine is extremely low compared to other sources.
Worldwide, the primary source is lithium won out of huge salt lakes in South America or China, with concentrations at 2 000 ppm lithium initially, up to 20 000 ppm after evaporation.
The second most significant lithium source is mining the pyroxene mineral spodumene, like in Australia, which provides a concentration of 5 000 ppm. Europe plans to mine its own lithium with new mines to open in Portugal, Finland, and France.
World’s largest lithium reserve
The hope for the United States lies in a volcanic crater on the border between Nevada and Oregon, which is believed to contain an estimated 20 to 40 million tons of lithium in clay layers. Here we’re talking about 9 000 ppm, says Jones, which is a different kind of magnitude than Mol.
Producing lithium as a byproduct of geothermal installations could be a fourth way of ‘digging’ for the raw material. Still, according to Jones, the chemicals needed to filter out the lithium from the brine, among all other kinds of minerals in it, make it an expensive process.
“Technically, it is feasible,” he says, “but as far as I know, there are no commercially viable projects today for winning lithium by geothermic installations.” Nevertheless, German Vulcan Energy is investing €1,5 billion in Upper-Rhine in Germany to ‘carbon-free’ produce up to 24 000 tons of lithium hydroxide by 2026.
Zero emission lithium
They play the environmental card, saying it will be the world-first lithium product with a carbon-neutral footprint. “The current main pathway for producing and refining lithium, from hard-rock mines, would emit approximately 1,05 billion tons of CO2 to produce the quantity of lithium required to electrify all the world’s passenger vehicles,” Vulcan claims.
One ton of lithium produced this way accounts for 15 tons of CO2 and 170 liters of water needed at a production cost of $6 855. With evaporation from the salt lakes, 5 tons of CO2 is produced, and 469 cubic meters of water are needed at a total cost of $5 872 per ton.
“Zero carbon lithium draws on naturally occurring, renewable geothermal energy to power the lithium extraction process and create a renewable energy byproduct for $3 140, using 70 liters of water and only six square meters of land to be disrupted. An open lithium mine could cost as much as 464 square meters per ton.
Oversupply of lithium
Even if that sounds promising, Professor Jones is skeptical. “The cost of the chemicals and installations you need is so high compared to the intrinsic value of lithium that I would be very surprised if it ever became profitable. In addition, lithium has recently halved in price.”
Lithium prices dropped by 72 percent in April 2023 from the highest price noted in November 2022. Contrary to the general perception that lithium is a rare commodity, lithium is found worldwide in quite substantial volumes. Experts expect even an oversupply in coming years as new lithium mining operations are set up before demand rises again.
Since 1994, the Bloomberg news agency noticed lithium production has increased by 1 500%. That’s why even when demand for lithium had already tripled, prices – except during the pandemic – remained relatively the same.