The growth prospects of the electric car industry have raised concerns about the sufficiency of raw materials for batteries. Europe is about to get its own lithium carbonate production in Finland.

Finnish lithium interests car manufacturers

Text: Jaana Ahlblad

It has been plain sailing, as the saying goes. This is at least according to Pertti Lamberg, CEO of the Finnish mining company Keliber Oy. The company owns vast lithium deposits in Central Ostrobothnia in western Finland.

The company’s prospects are great due to the fact that the lithium spodumene deposits of the area are the most significant in Europe, the global demand for lithium batteries is growing, the technical–economic analysis of the planned mine will be completed soon, evaluation of the mine’s environmental impact is progressing well and investors are interested. If the permit process goes through as planned, Keliber’s lithium mine and lithium carbonate production plant starts in 2019.

– If we could start production today, our share would be 5–10 percent of the global market, Lamberg says.

Currently, battery-grade lithium carbonate is mainly processed in China. According to Lamberg, European car manufacturers have been interested in Finnish lithium production.

– There has not been a need to think about the raw material chain before, but now we are running short of lithium carbonate. Most of the production is owned by a few non-European actors. This would be the first lithium mine in Europe, and as such geopolitically important.

Riding the green wave

Keliber has also been helped by the positive attitude of public discussion. According to Lamberg, the public understands the need for lithium as an important component of electric cars and green energy.

– There are no sulphides or soluble metals in the ore body that would cause a risk of acidification of the water system, which makes managing and talking about the environmental impact easier. When we do things correctly, the risks are minimal.

Communication is also supported by the opportunity to tell the public about the circular economy. Keliber will actively try to utilise the by-products of excavation. The quartz feldspar residue remaining in the tailings can be used by the construction industry and the zeolite-based matter in water treatment. These and other options for reducing the amount of disposed tailings are currently being researched by the EU-funded FAME project.

– There is demand for new types of feldspar products, for example. Naturally, it would also bring added financial value to Keliber, if a larger fraction of ore could be utilised as commercial products.

There are significant lithium spodumene resources in the Kaustinen region in Central Ostrobothnia. Tens of spodumene pegmatite veins have been discovered in the region.

Now is the right time

Hints of Central Ostrobothnia’s exceptional lithium deposits were found as long as 60 years ago. An ore enthusiast found a rock with a strange mineral that turned out to be spodumene, a rare lithium mineral. Extensive surveys were conducted for a long time, but as late as in the early 1980s, the market for lithium was too small for a mine to be viable.

The company now known as Keliber has owned two of its six deposits since 1999. Three of the company’s deposits were bought from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment’s international auctions. GTK has surveyed and developed those deposits earlier. Pertti Lamberg appreciates the partnership with GTK. Keliber and GTK have worked together closely at each stage.

– Thanks to GTK, the ore potential is known and we have been able to develop an efficient production process in cooperation with Outotec. It must also be said that GTK’s map materials are exceptionally good.

Currently, Keliber and GTK are preparing a biochemical research on finding indications of lithium deposits from plants.

Via waterways and railways

The estimated size of Central Ostrobothnia’s lithium spodumene deposits is over 500 square kilometres, but according to GTK’s ore potential survey, the lithium veins may be spread over an even larger area. Data was gathered by analysing moraine samples collected in the 1970s.

– Because the soil in the area is thick, geological boulder mapping and geochemistry play an important role. The work requires a lot of resources, Lamberg says.

Updating the mineral potential estimate continues while Keliber is making preparations for the excavation operations and planning a production plant.

It would be easy to ship lithium carbonate containers to the world, because the production plant in Kaustinen will be located only 50 kilometres from the deep-water port of Kokkola and a railway station.

Pertti Lamberg believes in lithium – so strongly that he left the professorship of geometallurgy he held at Luleå University of Technology and took a position as Keliber’s CEO in 2016.

– The price development of Lithium has been positive, and supply will not meet demand in the near future. There is room in the market for new operators, Lamberg explains.

Finland also produces other metals for batteries

Lithium batteries for electric cars also require nickel, cobalt, and graphite.

Finland is one of the largest producers of mined nickel in Europe. The largest known nickel and cobalt deposit is the Sotkamo mine, operated by Terrafame.

In addition to Terrafame’s mine, cobalt is being produced as a by-product at the Kevitsa nickel-copper mine. The Kylylahti copper-zinc mine also produces cobalt as a by-product, but it is not being refined at the moment. Sakatti is the fourth of Finland’s significant nickel and cobalt deposits. Its size is currently being surveyed actively.

In addition to Finland, Russia is the only other country on the European continent where cobalt is mined. Finland refines more nickel and cobalt than we excavate as raw materials.

– Geologically, Finland has a lot of potential for exploring new cobalt deposits as well. Where there is nickel, there is probably also cobalt, says Pekka Tuomela, head of GTK’s Ore Geology and Mineral Economics unit.

Finland’s bedrock contains graphite as well. It is being actively explored for, but it is not currently being produced.

A treasure trove in western Finland

  • According to GTK’s estimate, the known deposits of the lithium province would last tens of years.
  • Keliber’s mining operations will probably start at the Syväjärvi deposit, where the ore’s Li2O concentration is good and the ratio of ore and by-products is profitable.
  • The Rapasaari deposit is the largest in the area. It consists of multiple veins, whose thickness varies from a few metres to tens of metres.

Chris Broadbent emphasises that the purpose of the FAME project is to produce tangible benefits rather than produce solely research papers.

Europe is looking for flexible technology

How could we get more benefit from small mineral deposits? What are the best, most environmentally friendly and mobile processing technologies for compact operations? This is currently being investigated by the EU-funded FAME (Flexible and Mobile Economic Processing Technologies) project. All in all, 8 countries and 18 research institutions, universities and mining companies (mostly SMEs) are participating in the project.

The goal of this four-year project is to improve the self-sufficiency of Europe in regard to critical minerals. Multiple small deposits that are close to each other could be, for example, utilised by using a mobile processing unit and by pre-processing the minerals more effectively on site.

– The project has produced important observations, says FAME coordinator Chris Broadbent.

– Characterisation is fundamental to the successful development of the best processing option – mineralogy is often ignored by companies once the initial discovery has been made – but access to high quality mineralogical studies will assist interpretation of mineral processing results and help guide future test work.

– Lithium analysis is difficult. We have developed improved methodologies to determine Li contents, Dr. Broadbent continues.

Practical results will be demonstrated after tests.

– Lots of results are scalable already but once the pilot testing is complete most results will be directly exploitable and demonstrated to be exploitable commercially.

The growth of the GDP is a sign of success

– Rather than produce solely research papers the project will only be regarded as successful in the eyes of the EU if it has impacted positively on GDP and jobs growth within the EU28. If Keliber in Finland and Saxore in Germany can commence mining operations earlier because of FAME than otherwise would have been the case FAME will quite legitimately be able to claim that the project was successful.

Chris Broadbent, who works as a research director at the Wardell Armstrong consultancy company, emphasises the importance of conserving energy and taking environment into account in all development work in the sector.

– About 4% of all the energy consumed in the world is used in the crushing and grinding of minerals. Even a small percentage improvement can lead to massive energy savings worldwide. Environmental impacts and optimisation of the environmental performance with respect to tailings is crucial to the public acceptance of mining projects. If you can avoid tailings altogether it is even better, he summarises.

FAME is part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme. The budget for the project is approximately EUR 8 million. From Finland, GTK and Keliber Oy are participating in the programme.