Russia will start producing new oil - lithium, by Svetlana Zadera, Sergei Tikhonov for Rossiyskaya Gazeta. 04.09.2023.
In Russia, they plan to start industrial production of lithium, which is often called the oil of the new economy. The first project is planned to be launched at the Kolmozerskoye field in the Murmansk region by Rosatom and Norilsk Nickel. Gazprom also had a lithium project. They were going to extract it at the Kovykta field, from where gas is supplied via the Power of Siberia to China.
Lithium was mined in our country back in the 20th century, but then we completely switched to imports, mainly from Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. In 2022, Argentina and Chile stopped deliveries to Russia, and they accounted for up to 80% of our total lithium exports. Bolivia alone cannot cover our needs. Moreover, in 2021-2022, the price of lithium has risen sharply on the world market, almost 8 times, so the profitability of its imports compared to local production began to be questionable.
Lithium is used in the production of energy storage devices - batteries for mobile phones, laptops, household appliances and renewable energy sources (RES). But the main scope of lithium batteries is electric vehicles. It is with the increase in their number that the rapid growth in global demand for lithium and its rise in price is associated. According to Igor Bryzgunov, director of the Russian Wind Industry Association (RAWI), up to 70% of the world demand for lithium is associated with electric vehicles.
Russia is among the top ten world leaders in terms of forecasted lithium resources, explains Egor Zaruba, an analyst at VYGON Consulting. "According to our estimates, the cost of lithium production at the Kolmozerskoye field, which is being launched, is comparable to the ore projects of Australia, the USA, Mexico and Canada. It is also worth mentioning the potential of Russia in the extraction of lithium from formation waters (brines). Our analysis shows that the cost of lithium production from brines is lower than ore projects," Zaruba notes.
According to him, the concentration of lithium in the brines of individual aquifers in Western Siberia, the Ural-Volga region and the North Caucasus (these reserves are not included in the State balance sheet) exceed the minimum industrial content. The high mineralization of groundwater also makes it possible to obtain additional products: bromine, iodine, manganese, calcium and others. With the complex production of components from brines within the framework of the oil and gas field infrastructure, the cost of lithium production becomes comparable to the cost of production of key projects in South America, where lithium almost itself comes to the surface.
Here, however, the question arises, what should we do with such an amount of lithium. In 2022, the volume of domestic consumption of lithium was equal to imports and amounted to 8-9 thousand tons of lithium carbonate, Zaruba specifies. And according to Bryzgunov, by 2030 our country's need for lithium will be 30,000 tons.
Only at the Kolmozerskoye deposit it is planned to produce up to 45-50 thousand tons of lithium by the same 2030. We could talk about exports, but the main sales market is Europe, the USA and Canada, which are now not eager to establish trade relations with us. Asian countries have their own lithium deposits, and, importantly, export supplies have already been established - from Latin America and Australia.
As Sergei Gorkov, head of Rosgeologiya, noted in an interview with RG, we mainly consume lithium in the finished product. For example, as a battery for an electric car. Therefore, we now need to create not only the first redistribution (mining), but also the second (processing), the third (output), the fourth (goods ready for sale to the consumer) consumption redistributions.
However, we also have the opportunity to compete for export markets, if only by simply dumping prices. The cost of our extraction of one ton of lithium carbonate from ore raw materials is approximately 5-8 thousand dollars, explains Zaruba. According to the forecasts of foreign analytical agencies, by 2025 the price of lithium carbonate may drop from 70 to 20-30 thousand dollars per ton, when more supply from China, Chile and Australia enters the market. Even in the event of such a price reduction, the development of ore deposits in the Murmansk region will be profitable.
According to the expert, all excess production can be exported to the growing, nearby Asia-Pacific market, which currently forms more than 80% of world demand for lithium salts.
Russian lithium is in demand on the world market even under sanctions, primarily in the countries where the Rosatom corporation operates, Bryzgunov notes. The company works systematically, creating an umbrella brand. A completely own chain of production of a high-tech product with high added value is being created. These are the purchase of a South Korean manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries, the construction of a plant for the production of lithium-ion cells and batteries in Kaliningrad, the construction of a plant for the processing of lithium-ion batteries in Dzerzhinsk, and lithium mining projects in Bolivia. It's time to tackle the ambitious task of restoring lithium production in Russia.
But there are environmental issues here. Mining is associated with great environmental risks, especially in a situation where access to the best available technologies (mining with the least environmental impact) becomes more difficult, director of the HSE Institute of Ecology, Honored Ecologist of Russia Boris Morgunov told Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
"The huge accumulated environmental damage, both Russian and global, and the need to eliminate it (which is extremely costly), suggests that it is important to compare attractive economic prospects with possible environmental consequences. This may have a particularly detrimental effect not on the expansion of existing production locations, and in the territories of new development," Morgunov said.
Bryzgunov believes that the main environmental risks in the issue of lithium mining come down to the fact that there is no efficient and safe recycling of used lithium-ion batteries in the world.
“With current technologies, 50% of raw materials can be used again during processing, further technologies will only improve. A plant is being built in Dzerzhinsk for the task of processing lithium-ion batteries,” he said.
In general, an increase in the production of scarce minerals is expected in Russia, and lithium is included in this list. The Ministry of Natural Resources has prepared a draft strategy for the development of the mineral resource base until 2035 with an extended planning horizon until 2050. Morgunov noted that he considers such a vector of national geological exploration to be very promising.
The head of the Public Council under the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, Alexander Zakondyrin, told RG that in April the Public Council would consider this document and make recommendations, including on the environmental component.
“As for environmental risks, here it is necessary to take into account a combination of two factors: economics and ecology. It is clear that in such difficult times that the Russian Federation is now in and, given the sanctions policy, technological restrictions, financial difficulties, constantly create new regulatory requirements for subsoil users and users of natural resources, probably, we should not. At the same time, the issue of environmental safety in the extraction, processing, transportation of minerals within the framework of the current legislation, of course, needs to be controlled," said Zakondyrin.