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Europe must secure its metal supplies

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At the board game Wealth of the world, oil costs and earns more than nickel or copper. The energy transition could change the game, since it directs Western countries towards electro-mobility and the imperative of producing carbon-free electricity. To make this transition a success, a report published on Monday 25 April by researchers from KU Leuven University reminds Europe of the need to secure its metal supplies.

In 2050, a need for 35 times more lithium than today

The numbers are dizzying. To achieve carbon neutrality in 2050, the European Union will then need 800,000 tonnes of lithium per year, or 35 times more than today. It will take 330% more cobalt in the world, 35% copper, 45% silicon…

→ ANALYSIS. In Europe, lithium (obstacle) racing

“The birth of the European Metals Alliance, under the aegis of Commissioner Thierry Breton, signified an awarenessestimates Yves Jégourel, professor holder of the chair of economy of the raw materials at the Cnam. In France, it continued with the submission of the Varin report at the beginning of January. Now, as the window of opportunity shrinks, the question is how do we secure those supplies?. »

“Strong instability”

The file is at the confluence of economic, geopolitical, environmental and technical parameters. This is the case, for example, of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. They have long been so-called “NMC” (nickel manganese cobalt) batteries, with a balanced distribution of these different metals.

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However, problems with the supply of cobalt at one point led to a reduction in its presence, in favor of nickel, the price of which then experienced a spectacular surge – in particular due to the conflict in Ukraine.

→ EXPLANATION. Why is the war in Ukraine driving up nickel prices?

“The whole difficulty is to develop an ambitious supply strategy while maintaining the necessary flexibility to go to metals that we had not thought of.summarizes Yves Jégourel. The commodity market is still subject to strong instability. »

The American Tesla has thus sought to secure its nickel supplies while keeping an eye on other technologies, such as batteries made from lithium, iron and phosphate.

Pedagogy with populations

The report from the Dutch-speaking University of Leuven warns that the next two years will be decisive for the European Union to build its supply strategy. One of the conditions is to adopt a sector strategy. “The war waged by Russia has highlighted the lack of solidarity between players in the aeronautics sectorrecalls Yves Jégourel. Faced with the difficulties in obtaining titanium supplies, each link is tempted to place the responsibility on its subcontractor. »

Another factor explaining how well the game is playing now: it takes a long time to open a mine. There are a few lithium deposit exploration projects, however, such as in Alsace and across the Rhine, but local populations have to be convinced. “Pedagogical work is necessary to explain that the contemporary mine is no longer that of the 19and century “continues Yves Jégourel, recalling that an electric car needs four times more copper than its thermal counterpart.

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“Commodity diplomacy”

The sense of urgency should not obscure what the academic report points to as a ” good news “ : for part of the metals, the needs could be covered by recycling, provided that Europe invests in the appropriate sectors. This is one of the elements pointed out by the Varin report, also calling for the creation of an investment fund of one billion euros, including 500 million in public aid, to support the various mining projects.

“We must, at the highest level of the State, carry out a real diplomacy of raw materialsargues Yves Jégourel, which can honor the projects of exporting countries to develop their subsoil, and that this benefits local populations. » Eramet, well established in New Caledonia – a major asset for France – is also established in Indonesia, in partnership with a Chinese group: the Southeast Asian archipelago is presented as a future champion of production and nickel refining.

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