Paris - French minerals company Imerys has unveiled plans 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 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 wants to develop lithium production at its existing mine at Beauvoir, north of Clermont-Ferrand, after surveys suggested the potential to produce 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually for at least 25 years from 2028.
That would be one of Europe's largest lithium mining projects, the company said in a statement on Monday, and would be 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.
Capital expenditure for construction of the mine was estimated at around 1 billion euros ($983 million), while the production cash cost was projected at 7-9 euros per kilo, it said.
The company's shares were up about 4% in Paris trading.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last month that "lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas", and car makers are racing to secure capacity to cover their expected battery needs for electric vehicles.
However 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 for Europe's biggest lithium project.
The EU is also debating whether to classify lithium as a hazardous material, which could raise project costs.
Imerys aims to extract lithium from the Beauvoir site where it has been mining kaolin for ceramics since the late 19th century. The group said it would use underground mining methods to minimise the impact on natural habitats.
The project was welcomed by the French government, with the country's economy, energy transition and industry ministers quoted in support of the initiative in the French version of Imerys' statement.
The majority of worldwide lithium production and known reserves are outside Europe, notably in Australia, South America and China.
French mining group 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 Dominique Vidalon and Gus Trompiz; Editing by Tassilo Hummel and David Holmes)