In Spain there are important lithium mineralizations, located in Galicia, Castilla y León and Extremadura. However, since 2011 there is no active exploitation. Its economic importance and the risk in the supply requires considering the decision on whether to exploit resources responsibly and reduce the great dependence on imports, or leave our deposits unused and continue to buy the raw materials, necessary for the ecological transition, to other producing countries and at the price set by the international market.
What is lithium and why is it so important?
Lithium (Li) is a chemical element that belongs 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 highest 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 seawater and brines, and also in the form of inert mineral compounds, such as silicates or phosphates.
- The physicochemical properties of Li make it difficult to replace by other elements, and essential for the development of numerous industrial applications.
- Lithium concentrates are used in the glass and ceramic industry and in continuous steel smelting.
- 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 constituent silicates of “hard rocks”.
Chile, and also Argentina, produce most of the lithium carbonate, coming from the exploitation of the salt flats.
China, in addition to being one of the major producers of Li, is the main importer of this metal, both concentrates and processed, dominates the production of refined and most of the manufacture of lithium ion batteries worldwide. .
In the European Union, the dependence on imports of metal concentrates is close to 87%, since only Portugal has stable lithium production. 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 in supply – since a few countries control production – and the absolute dependence on the part of the EU countries have led to the need to know the existence and potential of European deposits of lithium to define adequate access strategies to our resources.
Some of the most current studies have established declared resources in the EU of 8 839 750 tonnes of lithium oxide. This amount has been 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 reserve and resource data changes as mineral exploration and research progresses. In addition, these values are subject to international market conditions at all times.
Lithium in Spain
In Spain there are important Li mineralizations, located in Galicia, Castilla y León and Extremadura, which are usually related to highly evolved bodies of a granite nature, such as pegmatites. There are also significant concentrations of Li in hydrothermal veins and in rocks affected by metasomatic processes.
Li is found forming 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 exploitation for the extraction of lithium in Spain. The last production came from Mina Feli, in La Fregeneda, in the province of Salamanca. It is a deposit of feldspar and lepidolite in pegmatite dikes. According to data from the company that exploited the deposit, in 2010 almost 8,000 tons of ore were obtained with 0.5% LiO₂. The destination of the Li from the Mina Feli lepidolite was the ceramic industry in Castellón.
Despite the absence of active mines for the extraction of Li in Spain, in recent years exploration projects for this metal have been carried out, with very important resource and reserve estimates.
In addition, some of these projects present novel aspects, such as the production of Li hydroxide, this refined lithium on which we are now completely dependent.
If we used our own mining resources, with the 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 has highlighted the interest and strategic relevance that these lithium mining projects in Spain could 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 is necessary to say that Spain, as well as the rest of the countries of the Union, has very restrictive legislation regarding the exploitation of mineral deposits, and a mine is not started up that does not guarantee the economic, social, cultural and environmental order of the country. territory.
Although recycling and reuse should play a fundamental role in the future, to satisfy current demand, the contribution of mining is necessary.
Our society must make the decision on whether to exploit resources responsibly and reduce the sector’s great dependence on imports, or leave our fields unused and continue to buy raw materials, necessary for the ecological transition, from other producing countries. and at the price set 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)
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.