Planned Lithium refining project announced near Strasbourg, France

Planned Lithium refining project announced near Strasbourg, France Port du Rhin, Strasbourg, France (source: flickr/ grego1402, creative commons)
Alexander Richter 15 Jul 2022

A French company has announced plans for the first lithium refinery plant in France tapping into Lithium resources from geothermal brines in the Alsace region of France.

In release shared already in June 2022, company Viridian announced the construction of a lithium refining plant in Lauterbourg. A first in France. To be operational by the end of 2025, the group shows the desire to become an essential player in the production of lithium for Europe.

The company located in Strasbourg was founded in November 2021 and announced its plans for the Lauterbourg site in June 2022.

Viridian plans to establish itself at the level of the ports of Lauterbourg, belonging to the Autonomous Port of Strasbourg (PAS). Rémy Welschinger, CEO of the company, explains this choice: “In Lauterbourg, we have privileged access to the Rhine. The site is already extensively developed and has all the necessary industrial permits, except those on the chemical level. Enough to move the project forward quickly.”

Possessing industrial permits upstream makes it possible to avoid carrying out impact studies. A real time saver for the manufacturer. 

A tight schedule

Two major steps still await Viridian before it can definitively launch its production of lithium hydroxide by the end of 2025. First, the company has launched a financial feasibility study over the next twelve months. Once the results have been obtained, the objective is to recover the necessary funds during the second half of 2023. The total cost of the plant is estimated between EUR 160 and 180 million. Construction should begin at the end of 2023 and last around two years.

By the end of 2025, Viridian expects to produce 25,000 tons of lithium hydroxide per year. “In concrete terms, with 25,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide, we can build around 500,000 city-type cars”, explains Rémy Welschinger.

By 2031, the stated objective is to open three additional production lines on the site, which would multiply output by four and make it possible to reach 100,000 tons of lithium hydroxide per year. By reaching this production capacity, Viridian could supply about 20% of the European market around 2030. Within ten years, European demand for lithium is estimated at 500,000 tonnes per year, which is more than the production current world market, which amounts to 475,000 tonnes over one year.

The desire to have the lowest carbon intensity 

Behind these objectives, there is the ambition to become the world leader in the production of lithium hydroxide. Where Viridian wants to stand out from its competitors is through its low-carbon production. It starts with the choice of the raw material. 

There are two ways to extract raw lithium in the world. The first is to take ore from mines, particularly in Australia and Latin America. The problem is that the concentration of lithium is quite low, around 1%. And the extraction is very energy intensive. This technique represents 60% of the world supply.

The second method relies on brine extraction and is done mainly in Latin America. Concretely, brine and a mixture of water and various chemical elements including lithium. Once extracted, it dries for several months in the open air, forming what looks like salt marshes. This process is five times cleaner than mining.

Next comes the refining of lithium into lithium hydroxide. Viridian wishes to supply itself with brines, the less energy-intensive method. And for the transformation in Lauterbourg, which requires chemical treatment and large quantities of electricity, the group intends to rely on the French energy mix. The production of electricity in French nuclear power plants is considered to be low in CO2 emissions. “Through these raw material supply choices associated with the French energy mix, we will produce lithium hydroxide with the lowest carbon intensity in the world. We really think we are providing a realistic solution”, underlines the CEO of Viridian. 

A booming market

By setting up in Lauterbourg, Viridian will become the first refined lithium production plant in France. To date, 60% of lithium is refined in China. “The lithium industry hardly existed 20 years ago. It’s a bit like oil in the 20th century. The majority of people were digging in the ground in search of black gold. The clever ones understood that refining had to be controlled. It’s a bit the same thing today, ”says Rémy Welschinger.

On June 8, the European Parliament voted a text banning the sale of thermal vehicles in 2035. Something to delight the lithium and electric car industry. However, the European Union hardly extracts the new white gold in its basements. It is completely dependent on its imports.

France has lithium reserves, particularly in Alsace, Auvergne and Brittany. However, no exploitation exists to date. Until then, there were no real economic opportunities, the lithium market being quite recent. Viridian will therefore have to source from Latin America.

Alsace: future lithium sector?

In December 2021, the first kilos of battery-grade lithium were extracted and produced in Alsace during the EuGeLi experimental project in Soultz-Sous-Forêts. “The objective of the project was to extract lithium from underground water before reinjecting it while exploiting the geothermal resource”, indicates the Geological and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM).

This experiment was part of a three-year project aimed at developing lithium production in the Rhine ditch area, in France and Germany. The first results suggest a large lithium deposit that could guarantee 10 to 30% of European needs by 2030.

The north of Alsace in particular is an area with high geothermal potential. This area contains geothermal brines containing lithium. Several companies, including Électricité de Strasbourg and Lithium de France SAS , are showing interest in exploiting the area. As such, Électricité de Strasbourg benefits from an exclusive exploration license for lithium mineral substances via an order issued on April 4, 2022 by the Ministry of the Economy. For a period of five years, the company will be able to search for lithium over an area of ??423 km 2 .

Two flats for Alsatian lithium

More local sourcing prospects for the Viridian factory? Rémy Welschinger is cautious. According to him, there are two short-term downsides for Alsatian lithium, in particular due to the use of geothermal energy to raise the brine. Viridian’s CEO shares his reservations: “In the next five years, the amount of lithium extracted will be minimal. You have to do things properly. The way in which the Fonroche drilling ended by triggering earthquakes is more than damaging. And then Alsatian brines are five to ten times poorer in lithium than those from South America. For the moment, no process suggests financial stability for the Alsatian sector. I hope I’m wrong, but for now, that’s how I see it. ”

Source: Rue89 Strasbourg, Company release