Interview with Stefan Debruyne, Director of External Affairs, SQM

We are delighted to welcome SQM as a platinum sponsor of the Raw Materials Summit 2023, Europe’s most important raw materials event. SQM is one of the world’s leading producers of lithium carbonate and hydroxide, with a presence on five continents. And, with its inclusion in the outstanding 2022 S&P Sustainability Yearbook, it is a recognized leader in the field of sustainability.

In this interview, the Director of External Affairs, SQM, Stefan Debruyne discusses why Europe must embrace the return of raw materials, his thoughts on the Critical Raw Materials Act, and why the future low-carbon economy must be better than the fossil-based economy it is replacing.

Stefan Debruyne is a speaker at the RawMaterials Summit in Brussels, on the panel “Why Europe must embrace the Return of Raw Materials.” on Wednesday 17. May 2023 at 9 AM.

Why is a Raw Materials Summit in Europe important to SQM?

Lithium is vital in the production of batteries that power electric vehicles. In 2020, Chile accounted for approximately 60% of Europe’s lithium chemicals demand and was the first South American country to sign an Association Agreement with the EU more than 20 years ago. In light of geopolitical challenges and Europe’s path to climate neutrality, the historic partnership is given new momentum to build closer relationships for responsible and sustainable mining.

SQM is a chemical and mining company and the world’s leading lithium producer, with a global market share of approximately 20% in 2022. SQM actively contributes to the increase of the use of electric vehicles in the world, focusing on the decarbonization of the planet. At the same time, the company’s vision is to become the most sustainable lithium producer in the world. This is done by meeting the highest national and international standards and ESG criteria, producing high-quality products with significant locally added value in its operations in the Salar de Atacama in northern Chile.

For this reason, we are very much looking forward to sharing SQM’s experience at this year’s Raw Materials Summit in Europe and contributing to the ongoing discussions on how to secure Europe’s lithium supply responsibly.

What were the reasons for becoming a Platinum Sponsor of the Raw Materials Summit 2023?

The Platinum Sponsorship offers SQM a great platform to share its track record and experience in sustainable lithium production and engage with stakeholders of the whole raw materials value chain, from policymakers, researchers, investors, and civil societies across Europe and beyond. We look forward to presenting SQM’s lithium corporate ventures fund, connecting with the innovations of the participating start-ups in the Innovation Village, and discovering new industry developments. We hope to welcome many people to our booth and look forward to exciting conversations and networking opportunities.

You are a panelist of “Why Europe must embrace the Return of Raw Materials.” What is your main message here?

To drive Europe’s transition to electric mobility, the global lithium supply must be expanded at an accelerated pace. However, the future low-carbon economy must be better than the fossil-based economy it is replacing. Many stakeholders support the transition to a sustainable world, yet there is no mine without impact. The most important question today is: How do we want to define the mine of the future to ensure a sustainable and equitable transition? At SQM, we believe we have the right attributes to answer this question whilst continuing to be a sustainable production leader in the broader industry.

For more than 25 years, SQM has been investing in innovation and technology to develop sustainable lithium production and high-quality lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide refining processes in Chile. This has made it possible to triple the company’s output from the lithium refinery between 2019 and 2022. At the same time, SQM reduced brine extractions at Salar de Atacama by more than 20% and cut water use by more than 50%. In addition, Chile’s lithium production shares significant value with the Chilean state and local stakeholders, thus representing a successful example of a public-private partnership.

What are the most significant steps/changes SQM takes to ensure sustainability in the raw materials sector?

According to various studies, the lithium chemicals produced by SQM already have the lowest water and carbon footprint of the entire industry worldwide. However, we are setting ambitious goals to strengthen our leadership position in sustainable lithium production. SQM recently presented its innovation roadmap for water-neutral lithium production in Chile. This is based on a combination of advanced evaporation technologies, direct lithium extraction, seawater adduction, and a desalination plant. In addition, SQM’s Salar de Atacama lithium and potassium operation was one of the first five mining sites in the world to undergo an on-site IRMA (Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance) audit, aiming for the most comprehensive and rigorous mining assurance standard that exists today. SQM is also part of the global “Race To Zero” campaign, in line with the company’s goal to produce net zero lithium by 2030, and a member of several international initiatives and associations that promote sustainability and transparency throughout the electric mobility value chain, such as the Global Battery Alliance and Circulor.

What is the most significant contribution of the European raw materials industry to meet the demands of the green transition and be competitive?

We need to consider the raw material supply in terms of resource efficiency and sustainability of use over time. The Li-Ion battery not only has a lifespan of 10-20 years, but around 90 percent of the cell is also recoverable. Significant developments in battery recycling and second-life applications are taking place in Europe, providing an avenue toward a more circular society. However, we first need to bring more raw materials into circulation until these developments can contribute to global raw materials demand in the long term. For new mining projects, it is important to remember that it can take up to 10 years from exploration to production, even if permitting hurdles are reduced. Additionally, consultation and buy-in from local stakeholders are absolutely essential. For this reason, combining these developments and innovations with reliable and sustainable mining projects that are already available is important.

What is the most significant factor that SQM welcomes, and what could be further considered within the CRMA?

While the EU builds its domestic mining and recycling capacity, it will continue to rely on imports to ensure the supply of required raw materials for the EU’s green transition. The CRMA, therefore, seeks to strengthen global engagement with reliable partners. Securing trade deals with strategic OECD partner countries like Chile will likely be important in diversifying and strengthening the EU’s battery and EV value chains. Supply chain resilience will require stable partnerships between countries that will benefit both parties. It will also mean that the EU will benefit from the high standards, transparency, and traceability of the material sourcing, which companies like SQM can guarantee.

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