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Interview: Automakers wising up to need for lithium security: European Metals

Automakers are starting to sit up and listen to European lithium companies because they realize they need to secure metal given they are fully committed to the electric vehicle revolution, the CEO of European Metals said in an interview.

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Speaking to S&P Global Platts, Keith Coughlan said even if all of Europe's potential lithium mine supply came to market there would still not be enough to satisfy forecast EV uptake and, as such, original equipment manufacturers were starting to cotton on to the fact they need to secure off-take.

European Metals is an Australian and UK-listed mineral exploration and development company advancing the Cinovec lithium/tin project in the Czech Republic.

Governments and industry are becoming more vocal on the need for Europe to supply its own battery supply chain to protect itself from China's increasing dominance.

The EU is keen to develop a domestic manufacturing base for lithium-ion and other batteries, as its battery market could be worth up to Eur250 billion ($280 billion) in 2025.

That led the European Investment Bank to agree in principle last month to lend Eur350 million to support Northvolt's lithium-ion battery cell factory in Skelleftea, Sweden -- the first such facility planned in Europe.

"I think it will be some time until Europe completely catches up [with China] in terms of Gw/h of production. However, I do believe that Europe's growth in battery production will be very strong as they are coming off a very low base," Coughlan said.

Currently, the majority of batteries are produced in Asia and then shipped to Europe.

It takes six weeks to ship batteries to Europe from Asia and, while at current manufacturing levels, that was not a problem, with demand for EVs expected to increase tenfold over the next seven years, delayed battery deliveries could bring about a slowdown or even a complete production stop at car manufacturing units.

Coughlan said a "mine to mouth" strategy was important for Europe to increase its global EV footprint.

"I think that the move to EVs is now irreversible. It just becomes a matter of the speed [of adoption]. Relative costs are an issue, but the price of batteries is dropping quickly too," he said.

Aside from EVs, the most talked about usage, Coughlan said stationary battery storage will be the next big growth area.

"You cannot effectively use renewable energy without a storage plan," he said.

That view was echoed by Professor Donald Sadoway, materials chemistry, MIT, who said that although the media glare is focused on EVs, stationary storage was likely to be a bigger deal for metals demand.

Without storage facilities, renewable energy, such as solar and wind, could become problematic as they create a glut of energy that overloads the system, causing spikes that damage consumer goods, Sadoway said.

When asked if he drove an EV himself, Coughlan said: "No, I do not. I live in Australia, a country with vast areas and a small population. That hinders infrastructure roll-out significantly. Sadly Australia will be a late adopter."

-- Ben Kilbey, ben.kilbey@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Daniel Lalor, newsdesk@spglobal.com