Europe’s Lithium Challenge on the Road to Electrification
The following content is sponsored by Rock Tech Lithium.
The Road to Electrification
The world is moving towards a cleaner future, one where we will likely see electric vehicles (EVs) dominating our highways and city roads.
In turn, increasing EV adoption will inevitably increase the demand for battery metals, the critical ingredients of lithium-ion batteries. With governments tightening emission standards and some planning to ban gas-powered vehicles completely, securing the supply of these minerals is becoming increasingly important.
Europe—the largest market for EVs—is well on the way to electrification, but it faces one big speedbump: lithium supply. The above infographic from Rock Tech Lithium outlines the lithium supply chain and Europe’s lithium challenge on the road to large-scale EV adoption.
The Lithium Supply Chain
Before lithium makes it into EVs, miners extract it from the ground and downstream companies convert it from its raw form into lithium chemicals for batteries.
According to the USGS, there are 86 million tonnes of lithium resources worldwide, but the majority of production comes from a few regions.
|Country||2020E Production (tonnes)||Resources (tonnes)|
Australia, Chile, and China collectively accounted for 88% of lithium supply in 2020. Australia, the largest producer, produces the majority of its lithium from hard-rock spodumene mines. In the Western Hemisphere, Chile is known for lithium evaporation ponds in the Salar de Atacama, its largest salt flat.
Refining lithium into battery-grade chemicals is just as important as resources in the ground. China, the third-largest lithium producer, also dominates the production of downstream chemicals—lithium carbonates and hydroxides—with over 80% of global refining capacity.
Due to concentrated mine production and China’s dominance in the supply chain, the rest of the world is dependent on imports from a few nations. Import reliance and the resulting lack of supply chain security are a cause for concern, especially as lithium demand rises.
Europe’s Rising Need for Lithium
The European Union (EU) aims to have at least 30 million electric cars on its roads by 2030. In addition, European countries have rolled out various incentives for EV adoption—from subsidies for manufacturers to tax benefits for buyers. Consequently, Europe is becoming a hub for EV and battery manufacturers.
In fact, the EU is expected to account for 18% of global battery manufacturing capacity by 2029, up from 6% in 2019. And this doesn’t account for the six new plants that Volkswagen is planning to build by 2030.
With a growing demand for EVs comes a rising need for lithium. According to the European Commission, relative to current supply levels, the EU will need 18 times more lithium by 2030 and 60 times more by 2050.
Without any large-scale domestic production, the EU is heavily reliant on lithium imports. This puts its supply security and sustainability at risk for the long term.
Tackling Europe’s Lithium Supply Challenge
In a bid to develop a domestic lithium-ion battery supply chain, the EU has taken up initiatives to support every stage, from sourcing raw materials to producing finished battery packs.
- The European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA)
The ERMA aims to develop a resilient supply chain for critical minerals by strengthening domestic raw material production.
- Financial support
The EU is offering EUR6.1 billion (roughly $7.5 billion) in subsidies to develop the battery production supply chain.
- The European Battery Alliance
A network of more than 600 participants from the battery value chain, aiming to build a strong and competitive European battery industry.
EVs are a key part of Europe’s push towards decarbonization, and mainstream EV adoption requires a sustainable supply of critical minerals like lithium.
Alongside these initiatives, developing new sources of both raw materials and refined products will play a key role in solving Europe’s lithium supply challenge.
Why Copper Is a Critical Mineral
From the electrical grid to EVs, copper is a key building block for the modern economy.
Why Copper is a Critical Mineral
Copper is critical for everything from the electrical grid to electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies.
But despite copper’s indispensable role in the modern economy, it is not on the U.S. Critical Minerals list.
This infographic from the Copper Development Association shows what makes copper critical, and why it should be an officially designated Critical Mineral.
Copper’s Role in the Economy
Besides clean energy technologies, several industries including construction, infrastructure, and defense use copper for its unique properties.
For example, copper is used in pipes and water service lines due to its resistance to corrosion and durable nature. As the Biden Administration plans to replace all of America’s lead water pipes, copper pipes are the best long-term solution.
Copper’s high electrical conductivity makes it the material of choice for electric wires and cables. Therefore, it is an important part of energy technologies like wind farms, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and the grid. The demand for copper from these technologies is projected to grow over the next decade:
|Energy Technology||Annual Copper Demand Growth (2021-2035P)||Use of Copper|
|Offshore wind||23.3%||Undersea cables, generators, transformers|
|Battery storage||21.8%||Transformers, wiring|
|Automotive*||14.0%||Batteries, motors, charging infrastructure|
|Solar PV||11.9%||Wiring, heat exchangers|
|Onshore wind||9.8%||Cabling, transformers, substations|
|Electrical transmission||7.2%||Transformers, cables, circuit breakers|
|Electrical distribution||2.7%||Transformers, cables, circuit breakers|
*excludes internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
Furthermore, policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will bolster copper demand through energy and infrastructure investments.
Given its vital role in numerous technologies, why is copper not on the U.S. Critical Minerals list?
Copper and the Critical Minerals List
The USGS defines a Critical Mineral as having three components, and copper meets each one:
- It is essential to economic and national security.
- It plays a key role in energy technology, defense, consumer electronics, and other applications.
- Its supply chain is vulnerable to disruption.
In addition, copper ore grades are falling globally, from an average of 2% in 1900 to 1% in 2000 and a projected 0.5% in 2030, according to BloombergNEF. As grades continue falling, copper mining could become less economical in certain regions, posing a risk to future supply.
The current USGS list of Critical Minerals, which does not include copper, is based on supply risk scores that use data from 2015 to 2018. According to an analysis by the Copper Development Association using the USGS’ methodology, new data shows that copper meets the USGS’ supply risk score cutoff for inclusion on the Critical Minerals list.
Despite not being on the official list, copper is beyond critical. Its inclusion on the official Critical Minerals list will allow for streamlined regulations and faster development of new supply sources.
The Copper Development Association (CDA) brings the value of copper and its alloys to society, to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Click here to learn more about why copper should be an official critical mineral.
Visualizing 25 Years of Lithium Production, by Country
Lithium production has grown exponentially over the last few decades. Which countries produce the most lithium, and how has this mix evolved?
Lithium Production by Country (1995-2021)
Lithium is often dubbed as “white gold” for electric vehicles.
The lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power EVs. Accordingly, the recent rise in EV adoption has sent lithium production to new highs.
The above infographic charts more than 25 years of lithium production by country from 1995 to 2021, based on data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.
The Largest Lithium Producers Over Time
In the 1990s, the U.S. was the largest producer of lithium, in stark contrast to the present.
In fact, the U.S. accounted for over one-third of global lithium production in 1995. From then onwards until 2010, Chile took over as the biggest producer with a production boom in the Salar de Atacama, one of the world’s richest lithium brine deposits.
Global lithium production surpassed 100,000 tonnes for the first time in 2021, quadrupling from 2010. What’s more, roughly 90% of it came from just three countries.
|Rank||Country||2021 Production (tonnes)||% of Total|
|#8||United States 🇺🇸||900||1%|
|Rest of World 🌍||102||0.1%|
Australia alone produces 52% of the world’s lithium. Unlike Chile, where lithium is extracted from brines, Australian lithium comes from hard-rock mines for the mineral spodumene.
China, the third-largest producer, has a strong foothold in the lithium supply chain. Alongside developing domestic mines, Chinese companies have acquired around $5.6 billion worth of lithium assets in countries like Chile, Canada, and Australia over the last decade. It also hosts 60% of the world’s lithium refining capacity for batteries.
Batteries have been one of the primary drivers of the exponential increase in lithium production. But how much lithium do batteries use, and how much goes into other uses?
What is Lithium Used For?
While lithium is best known for its role in rechargeable batteries—and rightly so—it has many other important uses.
Before EVs and lithium-ion batteries transformed the demand for lithium, the metal’s end-uses looked completely different as compared to today.
|End-use||Lithium Consumption 2010 (%)||Lithium Consumption 2021 (%)|
|Ceramics and glass||31%||14%|
In 2010, ceramics and glass accounted for the largest share of lithium consumption at 31%. In ceramics and glassware, lithium carbonate increases strength and reduces thermal expansion, which is often essential for modern glass-ceramic cooktops.
Lithium is also used to make lubricant greases for the transport, steel, and aviation industries, along with other lesser-known uses.
The Future of Lithium Production
As the world produces more batteries and EVs, the demand for lithium is projected to reach 1.5 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) by 2025 and over 3 million tonnes by 2030.
For context, the world produced 540,000 tonnes of LCE in 2021. Based on the above demand projections, production needs to triple by 2025 and increase nearly six-fold by 2030.
Although supply has been on an exponential growth trajectory, it can take anywhere from six to more than 15 years for new lithium projects to come online. As a result, the lithium market is projected to be in a deficit for the next few years.
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