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Vulcan ticks another key box for lithium brine plan

Vulcan Energy Resources executive chairman Dr Francis Wedin and managing director and chief executive officer Cris Moreno at the opening of the extraction plant in Germany. Credit: File

Vulcan Energy Resources’ bold bid to “future-proof” Europe’s lithium supply chain and electric vehicle (EV) industry has hit a new milestone with the opening of its AU$60 million lithium extraction optimisation plant in Landau, Germany.

The company says the start of operations at the plant – which it kicked off last Thursday – signifies the beginning of the world’s first production of net-zero carbon lithium and also represents Europe’s first tonnes of domestically-produced lithium chemicals.

The demonstration plant will be used for operational training and product qualification and the 40 tonnes of lithium hydroxide it will produce each year will be used and tested by Vulcan’s offtake partners as it scales up for its bigger operation. The company’s ultimate extraction plant is expected to produce some 24,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide a year once it enters its commercial phase from 2026.

The unique design of the operation at the “Zero Carbon Lithium” project will see it powered by the next-door geothermal plant. Vulcan says its operation is aimed at securing Europe’s lithium supply chain for battery-operated EV manufacturers and it will also service other customers with its lithium products.

Vulcan and its ZERO CARBON LITHIUM business is driving new standards of sustainability in the lithium industry, whilst being at the forefront of creating a new, locally-sourced lithium industry for BEVs in Europe. Our LEOP plant is ready to start production. This is not just an achievement for Vulcan, it’s a step forward for Germany, and more broadly Europe, securing the lithium it needs to help its auto industry survive and thrive in the electric age, without compromising on ethical or sustainability standards. Vulcan Energy Resources chief executive officer and managing director Cris Moreno

News of the demonstration plant opening comes just a week after the company revealed results of its recent bridging study, which showed capex costs would be slashed by some $168 million, while an expected annual EBITDA of about $873 million would be maintained, despite dipping lithium prices.

Vulcan’s process exploits the natural geothermal heat in the lithium-rich Upper Rhine Valley brine field to extract the silvery-white metal from the brine to manufacture lithium products with a net zero carbon footprint. It will also use surplus heat from the same source to co-produce renewable energy, representing a world-first in the lithium industry.

Management says it will provide affordable, baseload renewable energy and generate local employment opportunities in both the heating and electric power sectors. The company’s energy target is up to 560 gigawatt hours per annum (GWh/a) of baseload renewable heating for the local community’s commercial and domestic applications and up to 275 GWh/a of baseload power to be sold into the local grid.

Vulcan has successfully tested and piloted lithium production in its project area for nearly three years, including at its pilot plants in Insheim and Landau. It says more than 10,000 hours of testing of its in-house sorbent, “VULSORB”, shows a high level of performance relative to other commercially-available products.

The testwork has also demonstrated that a sustainable adsorption-type direct lithium extraction (A-DLE) production process – which accounts for 10 per cent of global lithium production – can be successfully applied in the Upper Rhine Valley when heated and powered by geothermal renewable energy. Management says it can achieve high lithium recoveries in thousands of cycles of sorbent life without degradation.

Vulcan says that once its extraction plant is fully operational, it will enable Europe to supply sufficient lithium pre-cursor products to meet requirements for 500,000 battery EVs per year.

The European Union has set a target for 100 per cent of vehicles to be carbon emission-free by 2035. That means Europe’s lithium demand is expected to rise by a factor of almost 60 times in the coming years – and until now, there has been no local lithium supply.

Vulcan sees the critical supply issue for lithium as a “policy tail-wind” as it presses ahead with the completion of its phase-one production. But with lithium offtake agreements already in place with industry giants such as Stellantis, Volkswagen, Renault, Umicore and LG, the company may be looking at something more like a “policy tail-phoon” as it heads into the maelstrom of sustainable battery EVs and other high-energy battery industries in Europe.

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