Germany has set itself the target of 15 million electric cars by 2030. You need a lot of lithium for the mobility revolution. 168,000 tons in 2030 to be exact. The “white gold” is often looked to overseas. But what about the self-sufficiency in the country and in Europe?

It’s no secret that Germany needs lithium. This is the case all over Europe. With the help of “white gold”, as the raw material is called among miners, a new age of mobility is to dawn: Electric cars, powered by lithium-ion batteries, are to drive through the country and at the same time protect the climate.

However, the largest lithium reserves are often in distant countries such as Australia, China, Chile or Brazil. Politicians and companies, on the other hand, want to reduce their dependence on unsafe third countries for lithium too. Every new lithium source discovered in Europe is therefore of particular importance.

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The deposits very close to us could do their part to promote the mobility turnaround in Germany and the European Union. Some also offer the possibility of sustainably mining the resource. An overview of the lithium deposits “next door” and the self-sufficiency forces of Germany and the EU.

The Upper Rhine Graben arouses great desire. It is about 350 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide. Along the German-French border, the lowlands stretch across the Vosges and the Black Forest. The Rhine flows right through the rift valley. A dream of a landscape.

This is exactly where one of the largest lithium deposits in Europe is suspected. The groundwater there contains a high concentration of dissolved lithium salt about two to five kilometers below the surface. About 160 grams of lithium-containing salts are dissolved per liter, which is 4.5 times as much as in the sea.

Vulcan Energy Resources plans to deliver 40,000 tons of lithium annually from the trench starting in 2026. A quantity that would be enough for around two million electric car batteries. Contracts with the car manufacturers VW, Stellantis and Renault have already been concluded.

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“Nobody knows whether the lithium in the thermal water is reduced by the extraction or whether it is washed afterwards,” said Steffen Kolb, professor at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences, to “National Geographic”. So the question is whether the lithium gets back into the water from the rock and how quickly that happens. It depends on how long the raw material source can be consumed. Vulcan Energy Resources has estimated the Rheingraben deposits in their production areas alone at over one million tons. However, citizens’ initiatives are also opposed to the funding. They fear earthquakes like those in Basel or Landau in the Palatinate. According to a study by the Federal Environment Agency, however, there are “no unmanageable risks” associated with geothermal energy.

The special thing about the Rheingraben: The funding could be completely CO2-neutral and energy could be generated at the same time. The first sustainable electric cars could then come from Germany.

The tranquil Serbian village called Gornje Nedeljice is probably less well known than the Upper Rhine region. The place is located in the west of the country near the town of Loznica on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Pictures from the air show houses, fields and isolated groups of trees – a place like it can be found anywhere in the world. In 2002 almost 700 people lived here. Today there are far fewer. Many have left him.

Because there is one thing in common between the western Serbian village and the Upper Rhine Graben: Here, too, one of the largest lithium deposits in Europe is suspected. Marnie Finlayson, managing director of the battery materials division of Rio Tinto, the British-Australian company that wants to mine lithium, said that Serbia has the potential to become Europe’s largest lithium producer in the next 15 years, writes Le Monde “.

As the scales of deposits grow, the village shrinks. Many sold their land to the group after explorers found a new mineral near the Jadar River in 2004. They dubbed it “jadarite” and found that the lithium and boron content in it was exceptionally high.

If you consider the EU’s plans to become the second largest manufacturer of lithium batteries after China by 2025, this find is a real treasure. So far, Europe has covered its entire lithium requirement through imports. Rio Tinto even has EU-level support from the Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry and Entrepreneurship to access local resources.

Angela Merkel made it clear that Germany is also interested in Serbian lithium. “If the whole world is interested, we are also interested,” she said in September 2021 at a press conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, knowing full well that the German auto industry has been investing a lot of money in Serbia for a long time. Contacts between Rio Tinto and German car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, VW and BMW have already been established. This emerges from a document from the mission of the Republic of Serbia to the EU, writes “Le Monde”.

The problem with the Jadar River: The burden on the environment and ecosystem would be high. Three times higher than at the Upper Rhine Graben. Citizens’ initiatives are opposed to the company’s plans and there is also disagreement in the Serbian government. Whether the lithium deposits at Gornje Nedeljice will ever be mined remains to be seen.

Central Ostrobothnia is located in western Finland. The region borders the Gulf of Bothnia and, according to the Finnish company Keliber, has “several well-explored lithium deposits covering an area of ​​more than 500 square kilometers”. Lithium discoveries were made there as early as the 1950s.

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The start of production is planned for 2024. Construction of the facilities is scheduled to begin as early as this summer. Actually, everything should have started much earlier. However, delays in the issuance of approval procedures repeatedly held up the project. According to the company, 15,000 tons of lithium hydroxide will soon be produced in Central Ostrobothnia. That’s the equivalent of around 200,000 batteries for electric cars.

The region around the city of Donetsk in south-eastern Ukraine has been contested for months. According to information from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Ukrainian troops are currently advancing in the northern part of Donetsk Oblast and are pushing back the Russian attackers.

This region is of particular importance for Ukraine. One of the largest lithium deposits in Europe is located here. The country’s mineral resources are generally plentiful and are of particular importance in times of war. Losing them to the enemy would be a severe economic loss. The European Union has also already latched on and concluded a strategic raw materials partnership with Ukraine in order to advance its own battery value chain.

The mining company European Lithium, an Australian company with a European branch in Wolfsberg, Carinthia, has secured this deposit. If production can start at some point after the war is over, the lithium deposit near the town of Shevchenko could become the largest lithium mine in Europe.

Olive trees thrive around Rome, hilly landscapes characterize the picture and lithium hides underground. 30 kilometers outside of the Italian capital is the Campagnano di Roma, a community with around 11,500 people. The lithium deposit is said to be located near the town of Cesano at a depth of around 1300 meters and over an area of ​​around 11.5 square kilometers.

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Vulcan Energie Resources, which is also involved in the Oberrheingraben, and Enel Green Power want to raise the treasure, which shows an above-average lithium concentration of 350 to 380 milligrams per liter, and share the earnings. For comparison: According to the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), the lithium concentration in the Upper Rhine Graben is between 200 and 400 milligrams of lithium per liter.

“If successful, the Cesano project could provide a source of strategic, sustainable lithium in Italy for the European battery and automotive markets and become a potential future addition to Vulcan’s ‘Zero Carbon Lithium’ business,” the company said in a statement . The next steps are still pending.

The municipality of Covas do Barroso in northern Portugal is considered remote and structurally weak. Rural exodus and emigration characterize the region. But in the village, about 145 kilometers north-east of the city of Porto, something is stirring. The largest lithium deposits in the country are suspected to be nearby. The mining group Savannah Resources even speaks of “Europe’s most important resource for hard rock spodumene lithium”.

But local residents aren’t too enthusiastic about it. Many protest against lithium mining. And this despite the fact that there are already numerous active mines for quartz and feldspar in the area. The extraction of the raw materials is identical to the way lithium is mined. In addition, in order to accommodate local residents, the government promises to share mining profits with them.

The plan is to soon produce 175,000 tons of the lithium mineral spodumene per year in the region. According to company information, the lithium deposits are sufficient for half a million car batteries – per year. Savannah Resources also advertises on its website that the project will be powered primarily by local electricity generated from renewable sources with zero carbon emissions. Despite all the advantages, the mining company still has to be patient. The community has filed a lawsuit against the project.

The Extremadura region borders Portugal and is considered to be rather poor. However, wealth is suspected here in the form of “white gold”. Near the city of Cáceres, in San José Valdeflórez, explorers suspect immense lithium deposits. The quantity should be sufficient to be able to build up to ten million electric car drives.

The mining company Tecnología Extremeña del Litio describes the lithium deposit at San José Valdeflórez as “the second largest on the continent” on the project website. This is the reason why the project is not only considered as a mining project, “but rather as an integrated project for industrial conversion”. According to the company, “100 percent renewable electricity” is also used here.

However, Tecnología Extremeña del Litio is fighting against resistance. In 2016, the regional government granted permission for test drilling in the valley of San José Valdeflórez. However, protests from local residents meant that approval for a second permit was not granted. The matter has now gone to court. A decision is still pending.

Located in the Eastern Alps, Austria’s Carinthia is arguably better known for the country’s tallest mountain, the Grossglockner, than for its lithium deposits. However, the exploration company European Lithium has been planning with this treasure in the mountains for a long time and will spend 450 million euros for the promotion.

A total of about 12.9 million tons of lithium rock are said to be in the wine plain. Around 800,000 tons of lithium are to be extracted from it every year. But as is so often the case in Europe, such projects have their limits. In Carinthia, too, there are still hurdles to overcome.

The dismantling was supposed to start as early as 2016. Conflicts with landowners, the corona pandemic or problems with the Austrian Financial Market Authority (FMA) have slowed down the project several times. The aim is now to start funding in 2024.

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And the way for this is clear in the truest sense of the word. As early as the Cold War, Austria blasted tunnels into the mountains in search of uranium. What was found, however, was lithium, which nobody needed at the time. Things are very different today.

The company particularly emphasizes the location of the deposits with a view to the import market for lithium in the European Union. These are easy to reach from Carinthia. The proximity to the industrial city of Wolfsberg, with “established infrastructure including connections to the European motorway and rail networks” is advantageous here.

The bottom line is that both Germany itself and Europe have sizeable lithium deposits. Nevertheless, according to experts, these quantities will not be sufficient for a complete turnaround in mobility.

Germany and the EU are therefore still dependent on imports, but can reduce their dependency on third countries such as China. For this, however, the way would have to be cleared(er) in national mining laws, the population would have to be brought more on board and educated, and further diversification of the mobility turnaround would have to be considered.

E-cars could be just one building block alongside the expansion of public transport. For a sustainable turnaround in transport, there should also be a stronger focus on measures such as more recycling and holistic mobility concepts.

It is also important to remember that electric car batteries require another important resource: cobalt. It is even rarer than lithium in Europe. According to the BGR, around 60 percent of the cobalt currently comes from the Congo. Here it is worth investing in research and supporting approaches that try to replace cobalt with other substances such as nickel, manganese or sulphur.