French lithium mine project unveiled in electric car race

  • Imerys targets 34KT/year of lithium hydroxide output from 2028
  • Project at existing site in central France backed by government
  • CEO says group to start talks with potential partners

PARIS, Oct 24 (Reuters) - French minerals company Imerys (IMTP.PA) unveiled plans on Monday to develop a lithium mine in central France that it said could be a leading contributor in Europe's quest for electric-vehicle battery materials.

Electric cars such as Renault's (RENA.PA) Zoe are key to the European Union's strategy to cut emissions and the bloc is trying to reduce reliance on battery supplies from Asia.

Imerys aims produce 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually for at least 25 years from 2028 at an existing mine at Beauvoir, north of Clermont-Ferrand.

That would be one of Europe's largest lithium mining projects, the company said, and enough to supply around 700,000 electric car batteries a year - a sizeable chunk of the government's target of 2 million EVs per year produced in France by 2030.

Imerys was surprised at the scale of the resource after a previous geological survey dating back to 1960 showed a much smaller deposit, Chief Executive Alessandro Dazza told Reuters by telephone.

The group will now begin talks with potential industrial and financial partners, including car makers, with a view to deciding on an investment model before the main construction phase projected to cost around 1 billion euros ($983 million) and begin in mid-2025, Dazza said.

"The game starts now," he said of partnership discussions.

Imerys is positioning the project as a low-emissions one, helped by the use of an existing mining site and underground extraction supported by electric vehicles.

New mining projects can attract local opposition, as evidenced by environmental protests in Serbia which led the government to revoke permits held by Rio Tinto (RIO.L), (RIO.AX) for Europe's biggest lithium project.

Imerys did not see significant risks in planning permission given backing from local and national authorities, Dazza said.

The mine plan was welcomed by the French government, which announced that it was one of five critical metals projects, also including a recycling scheme led by mining group Eramet (ERMT.PA), that would receive a total of 100 million euros in funding.

Imerys estimated the lithium cash cost at 7-9 euros per kilo for the planned mine, which will be located at its Beauvoir site where it has been mining kaolin for ceramics since the late 19th century.

The company's shares closed up 5% in Paris.

The majority of worldwide lithium production and known reserves are outside Europe, notably in Australia, South America and China.

Eramet is developing lithium production in Argentina and is among companies exploring geothermal extraction of lithium in the Rhine basin around the French-German border.

($1 = 1.0171 euros)

Reporting by Gus Trompiz and Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Tassilo Hummel, David Holmes and Bernadette Baum

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Thomson Reuters

Paris-based reporter covering commodities, mostly agriculture, looking at production and its impact on health, the economy and the environment.