Sales and manufacturing of electric cars are growing. Governments want to ban petrol and diesel cars. Electric cars need batteries. Batteries need lithium. There isn’t enough lithium available to meet demand. Portugal has lithium.

The price of lithium has quadrupled in the last year. While Chile, Australia, Argentina, and China are home to the world's highest lithium reserves, other countries also hold significant amounts. Chili holds the world’s largest reserves of lithium, but apart from any other consideration, Chili is a long way away from Europe, and transport alone adds a lot to the cost of delivery to Europe.

China holds massive reserves of lithium but mostly uses it for its own manufacturing of batteries.

Where to find lithium in Europe?

Portugal is believed to sit on some of Europe's biggest lithium deposits and as a result has been picked for Europe's biggest lithium mining and treatment plant.

Compare to other countries with large deposits of lithium

United States — 750,000 MT.

Canada — 530,000 MT.

Zimbabwe — 220,000 MT.

Brazil — 95,000 MT.

Portugal — 60,000 MT.

It’s obvious why Portugal holds a unique advantage for supplying Europe. A UK based mining company Savannah proposed to join forces with Galp to explore what they said will be Europe’s largest lithium mine in Mina do Barroso. This project seems now to be wholly owned by Savannah as Galp did not take up an option they had rights to.

The Mina do Barroso Lithium Project is located in northern Portugal approximately 145 km northeast of Porto and the industrial port of Leixões. Having taken an initial 75 percent stake in the Project in May 2017, Savannah has subsequently become its sole owner and expanded the Project, adding the adjacent, 3 block, ‘Aldeia’ Mining Lease Application to the original granted Mina do Barroso Mining Lease, valid until 2036, (extendable for 20 years). The Project is now well established as Western Europe’s most significant lithium project.

Fierce opposition to the mine

Opposition to the lithium mine has been very strong, but Savannah, advises that its’ wholly owned subsidiary, Savannah Lithium Lda., has been joined as the counter-interested party in litigation brought by the Parish of Covas do Barroso as plaintiff in the Mirandela Fiscal and Administrative Court against the Republic of Portugal and the Ministry of Economy as defendants. The C-100 Mining Lease which contains the Barroso Lithium Project is fully authorised, has a term of 30 years to 2036 and remains in good standing. The advice from Savannah’s lawyers is that the claim is without foundation and will be challenged by Savannah as the counter-interested party alongside exploring all potential options, including making a claim for damages against the plaintiff.

What are the objections to lithium mining in Portugal?

The idyllic landscape near the village of Covas do Barroso is the site of the new open cast lithium mines. Needless to say the local residents are up in arms, in fairness, so would I be if it was near my property. We are all ‘NIMBYS’ at heart (not in my back yard). The chairman of a local action group, Nelson Gomes, says the plan is to mine lithium here in four locations initially. "There will be huge mine dumps, and rivers will be redirected." "The whole landscape and its ecological balance will be destroyed." The group's motto "Yes to life, no to the mine" is seen hanging on more and more facades and traffic signs. "We've been involved in sustainable farming for centuries," Gomes said. "We're small family-run businesses, keeping afloat without much help from the state — and we're not going to give this up just like that; we'll fight against the mine right until the end."

He may well be right, but this project is too important to the Portuguese economy to be ignored. According to Nuno Forner from the environmental pressure group Zero, foreign companies are interested in mining lithium in Portugal, but less so in refining the mined metal locally. That is no longer factual.

What about the processing of lithium in Portugal?

Once mined lithium needs to be processed and this is where Galp is clearly focusing its efforts. They have formed a joint venture with the Swedish company Northvolt. It’s clear that the lithium needs to be processed in Portugal, not exported for other countries to benefit from Portugal’s ‘white gold’.

Swedish battery storage company Northvolt and Galp have agreed to set up a joint venture called Aurora with the goal to build Europe’s largest and most sustainable integrated lithium conversion plant. The facility in Portugal is set to have an initial annual output capacity of up to 35,000 tonnes of battery grade lithium hydroxide, a material needed in the production of lithium-ion batteries.

That will be sufficient for batteries in about 700,000 electric vehicles.

Galp and Northvolt are still searching for the best site for their lithium conversion plant, which they envisage to start commercial operations in 2026, pending a final investment decision. Some report suggested that Sines was the preferred location, but other locations nearer the mines are under consideration. The plant could represent an investment of about €700m and create up to 1,500 direct and indirect jobs.

Reality check

It doesn’t take a financial genius to see the obvious facts. Vehicles are going electric. They need batteries, batteries need lithium. Portugal has one of the largest reserved of lithium in Europe. The Barroso Project will produce enough lithium each year for approximately 0.5 million electric vehicle battery packs. Local people will protest, I don’t blame them, but it’s going to happen.

Portugal has ‘white gold’ and Europe wants it.