Explainer: Why the lithium that led to the Portuguese government’s current crisis is so important

Image of lithium battery cells in a warehouse.

Image of lithium battery cells in a warehouse. Credit: Yo-Co-Man/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

THE Portuguese government is currently in total disarray following the resignation of Prime Minister Antonio Costa.

His resignation was handed to Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa which was duly accepted. It came after the Public Ministry announced that Costa was the target of an autonomous investigation by the Supreme Court of Justice into his alleged involvement in lithium and hydrogen businesses in the country.

In response to the investigations of the Attorney General’s Office that led to the resignation of Costa, several associations that had been protesting and trying to stop lithium exploration projects in Portugal called for their cancellation, according to publico.pt.

‘We demand the immediate cancellation of all lithium mining projects in Portugal, whether in the prospecting, evaluation, or exploration phase’, read a joint statement from these groups.

Where are the related projects located?

The Vila Real municipality of Montalegre and Barroso in Boticas are reported to be two of the epicentres of the cases at the heart of the investigations of the Attorney General. They are linked to the exploitation of lithium in Barroso and the production of hydrogen in Setúbal.

Also under investigation are believed to be the creation of a hydrogen power plant in the city of Sines and the construction of a data centre, also in Sines, by the company Start Campus.

When did lithium mining start in northern Portugal?

In 2019, the Portuguese government opened lithium mining concessions in the mines of Romano, in the village of Montealegre, and Barroso, in the municipality of Boticas, both in the north of the country.

With 60,000 metric tons of known reserves, Portugal is already the largest European producer of lithium, although only now are the miners preparing to start the exploration. Several companies are trying to exploit the Portuguese deposits, both national and international.

On numerous occasions, residents of both regions have voiced their opposition to the exploitation of lithium taking place in what is a World Agricultural Heritage region.

According to the United States Geological Survey, of the estimated 39 million tons of lithium deposits that exist, Portugal has the largest reserve in Europe. With about 60,000 tons, it is the sixth-largest in the world, behind Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, the so-called ‘lithium triangle’.

What about green hydrogen?

The production of energy from green hydrogen (or sustainable) is one of the objectives of the Portuguese government. As a result, in recent years, the construction of a plant started in Sines, in the southwest of the country.

A process using hydrogen to generate energy is considered sustainable because it emits no polluting gases, such as carbon dioxide, only water vapour.

Portugal’s ambitious project to create sustainable energy in the country has already been praised by Kadri Simson, the European Commissioner for Energy.

Datacentre in Sines

Composed of nine buildings, a data centre is being built in the industrial region of Sines which is expected to be completed by 2027. It will be one of the largest in Europe and will have a capacity of up to 495 MW.

Start Campus, the company responsible for the project, intends to install solar panels to be able to use renewable energy to maintain the structure operating. In addition, the company wants to create a project that allows the use of sea water to cool the servers, according to g1.globo.com.

What is lithium?

Lithium is a soft, silvery-white metal with a density of 0.534 grams per cubic centimetre. It is the lightest metal and the third element in the periodic table. Extremely reactive, it reacts with air and water to form a white coating of lithium hydroxide.

Found naturally in rocks and minerals, it is not very common. Lithium is extracted from brine pools and lithium-rich rocks with the largest producers in the world being Australia, Chile, Argentina, and China.

Why is lithium used in batteries?

Lithium-ion batteries are the most common type of lithium battery. They are used in a wide variety of portable electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

In electric vehicles, lithium-ion batteries are used in cars, buses, and lorries. They offer a long range and can be recharged quickly.

These type of batteries are used in energy storage systems to store energy from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power. This energy can then be used to power homes and businesses when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

How is lithium used in medicine?

Lithium is used to treat bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions. It works by stabilising a person’s mood and helps to reduce symptoms of mania and depression, while also being used to treat migraines and cluster headaches.

Is Lithium used in glass and ceramics?

Lithium makes glass stronger and more resistant to heat and chemicals while also giving ceramics a smoother finish, making them more durable.

Glass made with Lithium is used in a variety of products, including windows, windscreens, and cooking pots. Lithium-containing ceramics are used in a variety of products, including tableware, tiles, and electrical insulators.

What is its use in lubricants?

Lithium is used in the production of lubricants, such as lithium grease. This grease is resistant to water and heat, making it ideal for use in automotive and industrial applications. It is also used in a variety of applications, including wheel bearings, ball joints, and universal joints.

What other uses does lithium have?

Lithium is also used in a variety of other products, including rubber, plastics, and fireworks. Its use in rubber makes the product more durable and resistant to heat and chemicals.

When used in the manufacture of plastics, it makes them more lightweight and strong. The bright white light produced by fireworks is usually caused by lithium.

How will lithium affect the future?

The development of new technologies, such as electric vehicles and energy storage systems is dependant on lithium. Its demand is expected to increase significantly in the coming years.

There are a number of challenges to be addressed in the lithium industry, such as developing sustainable mining practices and improving the efficiency of lithium-ion battery production. However, the long-term outlook for lithium is positive.

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Written by

Chris King

Originally from Wales, Chris spent years on the Costa del Sol before moving to the Algarve where he is a web reporter for The Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at editorial@euroweeklynews.com