We need lithium, which is now essential for electric car batteries. It is also used for drug treatments for bipolar disorder and others. However, lithium and white gold are scarce
In Spain there are important lithium mineralizations, located in Galicia, Castile and León and Extremadura. However, since 2011 there is no active exploration. Its economic importance and supply risk require considering the decision to exploit resources responsibly and reduce heavy dependence on imports, or leave our warehouses unused and continue to buy the raw materials needed for the ecological transition, for other producing countries. and at the price defined by the international market.
What is lithium and why is it so important?
Lithium (Li) is a chemical element belonging to the group of alkali metals. With a density of 0.53 g / cm³, it is the lightest and least dense metal in solid state at room temperature. It has the greatest electrochemical potential of all metals and excellent electrical and thermal conductivity. Due to its high reactivity, it does not appear as a native metal, appearing as chloride in sea water and brine, and also in the form of inert mineral compounds, such as silicates or phosphates.
Li’s physicochemical properties make its replacement by other elements difficult and essential for the development of numerous industrial applications.
- Lithium concentrates are used in the glass and ceramic industry and in continuous steel casting.
- Metallic lithium is used in metallurgy and in the manufacture of aluminum alloys.
- Lithium carbonate is used in the pharmacological treatment of bipolar disorder, depression, and other conditions.
- Lithium hydroxide is an essential component in the manufacture of lubricants and is also used to purify the air, removing CO₂ from the environment.
These last two compounds are being used with increasing intensity in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles and portable electronic equipment.
Lithium around the world
Australia is the largest producer and exporter of lithium concentrates, extracted from the silicates that make up the “hard rocks”.
Chile, as well as Argentina, produce most of the lithium carbonate, which comes from the exploitation of salt marshes.
China, in addition to being one of the largest producers of Li, is the main importer of this metal, both concentrated and processed, dominates the production of refined products and a large part of the manufacture of lithium ion batteries worldwide.
In the European Union, dependence on imports of metal concentrates is around 87%, as only Portugal has a stable production of lithium. Furthermore, the EU is totally dependent on imports of processed compounds because no country in the Union carries out refining processes. Although the EU recycles lithium-ion batteries, today their industrial recycling is not considered economically viable.
The situation described, its economic importance, the risk of supply – as few countries control production – and the absolute dependence on EU countries have led to the need to know the existence and potential of European lithium deposits in order to define strategies to access our resources.
Some of the most current studies have established EU declared resources of 8 839 750 tonnes of lithium oxide. This amount was established taking into account 27 potential deposits in 9 countries of the Union: Czech Republic, Serbia, Ukraine, Spain, France, Portugal, Germany, Austria and Finland.
It is important to note that mineral resources and reserve data change as mineral exploration and research progresses. Furthermore, these values are always subject to international market conditions.
Lithium in Spain
In Spain there are important Li mineralizations, located in Galicia, Castile and León and Extremadura, which are normally related to highly evolved bodies of granitic nature, such as pegmatites. There are also significant concentrations of Li in hydrothermal veins and in rocks affected by metasomatic processes.
Li is found as part of the structure of silicate minerals, such as spodumene, petalite, lepidolite and zinwaldite, and of phosphates, such as those belonging to the ambligonite-montebrasite series.
Since 2011 there is no active exploration for lithium extraction in Spain. The latest production came from Mina Feli, in La Fregeneda, in the province of Salamanca. It is a deposit of feldspar and lepidolite in pegmatitic dykes. According to data from the company that explored the deposit, in 2010 almost 8,000 tonnes of ore with 0.5% LiO₂ were obtained. The Li of the Mina Feli lepidolite was destined for the ceramics industry of Castellón.
Despite the absence of active mines for the extraction of Li in Spain, in recent years projects have been carried out to explore this metal, with very important resource and reserve estimates.
In addition, some of these projects have unique aspects, such as the Lithium hydroxide production, this refined lithium that we now completely depend on.
If we used our own mining resources, with electric car and battery factories already in operation, we could establish the entire electric mobility value chain in the country. In fact, the European Commission highlighted the interest and strategic relevance that these lithium mining projects in Spain can have for the development of the automotive industry.
However, part of our society, motivated by a protectionist attitude towards the environment, rejects the execution of mining projects, preventing this activity from taking place in a nearby environment. It must be said that Spain, like the other countries of the Union, has very restrictive laws regarding the exploration of mineral deposits, and a mine does not start that does not guarantee the economic, social, cultural and environmental order of the territory.
Although recycling and reuse should play a fundamental role in the future, to meet current demand, the contribution of mining is necessary.
Our society must make the decision to exploit resources responsibly and reduce heavy dependence on the import sector, or leave our fields unused and continue to buy raw materials needed for the ecological transition from other producing countries. And at the price defined by the international market.
Susana Mª Timón Sánchez, Senior Scientist. Department of Geological Resources for Ecological Transition, Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME – CSIC)