Lithium: white gold rush

Perched at an altitude of 3,600 meters, in the southwest of Bolivia, the Uyuni Salar conceals a fabulous treasure: 21 million cubic meters of lithium, or 40% of the world’s reserves of this metal on which the future of automobile industry.

If Bolivian production is still limited to the few tonnes leaving the small Llipi factory, the salt flats of neighboring Chile are operating at full capacity. The evaporation ponds for the brines pumped into the basement extend as far as the eye can see.

After a few weeks, there will only be lithium chloride left ready to reach Chinese factories to be transformed into lithium carbonate and supply the battery manufacturing lines.

If Chile and Australia produce three quarters of the world’s lithium, Beijing concentrates most of the sector… and the added value. Much to the dismay of the automobile industry and European governments.

30,000 In kilometers, this is the distance traveled by Chilean lithium, from its extraction to the factories of European car manufacturers, via Chinese battery processing and manufacturing sites.

At the bottom of the mine

After oil, Europe must deal with its dependence on lithium. To remedy this, exploitation projects are emerging on the continent, in Portugal and Germany in particular.

In France, a sector seems to be emerging, with several deposits identified in the Massif Central, Brittany and Alsace.

The most promising project is located near Échassières, in Allier. Imerys plans to extract lithium there from 2028, with a target of 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year, enough to equip 700,000 electric vehicles with batteries.

And ensure 1,000 to 1,600 direct and indirect jobs. The group must, however, reassure about the environmental impact of the project.

It promises 100% underground exploitation to limit noise pollution and dust, the use of electric machines for the extraction and crushing of the ore and the transport of mica to the processing plant via pipes in order to avoid the influx of trucks on the roads of this rural area.

Finally, Imerys is committed to treating or reusing a large part of the 1.8 million cubic meters of water annually required for extraction and processing operations.

8 kg This is the average quantity of lithium contained in an electric car battery with a capacity of 60 kWh.

Towards zero carbon lithium

These measures could make Échassières lithium one of the cleanest in the world, with CO2 emissions half that of Australian mines and water consumption 5 to 15 times lower than Chilean salt flats.

This asset appeals to car manufacturers, in search of “clean” lithium. In June 2022, Stellantis entered the capital of Vulcan, an Australian company which develops extraction technologies without the use of fossil fuels.

A first site should open in 2026 in the Rhine valley, Germany, and lead to the delivery of the first zero-carbon lithium. Faced with the climate emergency, white gold is even more valuable if it is green!

Lithium production has jumped from 34,000 to 180,000 tonnes in ten years(1). This increase is mainly explained by the growing needs for batteries from automobile manufacturers, engaged in a process of forced electrification of their ranges.

Between 2013 and 2023, global sales of electrified vehicles – 100% electric or plug-in hybrids – increased from 91,000 to 14 million units, and now constitute 20% of the market. A proportion expected to increase by 2030.

The Rocky Mountain Institute study center estimates that these models will account for two-thirds of total sales by 2030. A boon for players in the lithium sector since automobile batteries represent 80% of white gold consumption ( a share expected to rise to 95% by the end of the decade, according to a report from McKinsey & Company).

Huge deposits in the Andes mountain range

If lithium deposits have been discovered all over the world, five countries today account for 99% of world production, more than three quarters of this metal coming from Australian mines and the salt flats of Chile.

A large part of the known resources are found in South America, in a region called the lithium triangle, shared between Argentina, Chile and Bolivia.

Huge salt lakes are said to house 80% of the world’s lithium reserves. Bolivia, however, is slow to exploit its immense resources, due to lack of sufficient infrastructure and investment. A recent discovery could reshuffle the cards.

A study published in Science Advances reports the discovery of a gigantic lithium deposit in the United States, where the mega volcano McDermitt caldera contains 120 million tons of lithium, four times more than Bolivia, Chile and Argentina reunited!

(1) Source: US Geological Survey.

The highlights

Nobel Prize winners

Lithium was discovered in 1817 by the Swedish chemist Johan August Arfwedson. Two centuries later, his distant heirs, John B. Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, received the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on Li-ion batteries.

Multiple talents

Long before the advent of lithium button batteries, in the 1970s, the metal was used to improve the heat resistance of glass and as a polymerization initiator in the production of synthetic rubber and tires. It is also used in medicine to treat mood disorders.

The influence of the Middle

The third largest producer of lithium, China holds 7% of the world’s known reserves and dominates refining, an operation necessary to obtain battery-quality lithium carbonate (60%). Its factories produce 70% of the lithium-ion cells used in automobile batteries.

Full of energy

Li-ion batteries have on average a density four times greater than that of lead-acid batteries, which allows the same quantity of energy to be stored in a smaller volume. They have a much longer lifespan and better loading speed.



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