"The more we dig, the more we find," said David Archer from the foot of a drilling crane penetrating granite rock in the mountains of northern Portugal in an effort to measure lithium content. The metal has become known as "white gold" since the demand for electric batteries has exploded.
His British mining company, Savannah Resources, hopes to open "the first major lithium mine in Europe," by 2020, he told AFP from Boticas, a town in the Vila Real region of Portugal.
Tripling in prices
On Monday, 10 September, Savannah resources announced that it had increased their estimate of the Mina do Barroso deposits by 44% to 20.1 million tonnes of ore, with a lithium content of 1.04%. 25 kilometers away, in neighboring Montalegre, the Portuguese company Lusorecursos also claims to be seated on "the largest lithium deposit in Europe", with 30 million tonnes of ore graded at 1.09%, which it also intends to start extracting in 2020, according to Financial Director Ricardo Pinheiro.
"The explosion of the battery industry has triggered a craze for lithium" and its market value has tripled in three years, says Lucas Bednarski, director of the specialised market research firm Lithium Today.
This white silver metal, which is already used to make the lithium-ion batteries found in phones and laptops, will be increasingly sought after due to the development of electric cars, as they require much more powerful batteries.
"Lithium could be worth gold for Portugal, since we estimate that in 2025 the European battery market will be worth 250 billion euros a year", says the vice president of the European Commission in charge of Energy, Maros Sefcovic.
For almost a year now, the Slovakian Commissioner has been working on a sector project capable of building a new generation of "green", recyclable and reusable electric batteries within the EU. The first step is to reduce dependence on other components. Europe imports 86% of the lithium it consumes, with producers mainly located in Chile and Australia.
More expensive than Chile
Portugal is already the main European producer, with a market share of 11%, but its production is entirely used for ceramic and glassware products. “Portugal has the largest deposits in Europe, and the question is whether it is economically viable to extract it because it is a very competitive global market,” says Bednarski.
According to his estimates, the production of lithium extracted from Portuguese granite rock is about 2.5 times more expensive than that produced from Chilean brine deposits.
Ludovic Dupin with AFP