Daily Management Review

World's Lithium Industry Is Interested In Testing Out Argentina's Salt Flats


World's Lithium Industry Is Interested In Testing Out Argentina's Salt Flats
Salty brine drawn from far below the earth's surface fills a large tank two floors high with black tubes in an arid plain in the highlands of northern Argentina.
The brine includes lithium, a silvery white metal that is in great demand as the globe moves towards renewable energy sources and is necessary for producing batteries for electric vehicles. The revolutionary method known as direct lithium extraction, or DLE, is being tried by French miner Eramet in an effort to produce the metal with less water in a cleaner, quicker, and less expensive manner.
In contrast to conventional techniques, there are no football-field-sized brine pools left behind when the liquid evaporates in the sun, containing lithium.
Since that 70% of the lithium in the world is contained in brine rather than rock or clay, DLE, which removes the metal significantly more quickly, may be essential to worldwide supply.
Rivals from Chile to the United States who are also attempting to commercialise DLE are keeping a close eye on Eramet. By November, it hopes to produce its first tonne of lithium carbonate, and by mid-2025, it hopes to reach 24,000 metric tonnes annually.
Argentina, the fourth-largest lithium producer in the world, is putting its $870 million project in the northern province of Salta in the limelight ahead of mining behemoth Rio Tinto, South Korea's Posco, and Chinese miners Zijin and Ganfeng, whose projects are scheduled to go online in the nation in the coming months.
Argentina's increased output ought to almost quadruple its capacity, closing the difference with the leading producer in Latin America, Chile. Despite obstacles, some analysts predict it will surpass Chile by the end of the decade.
The precise date of Eramet's Centenario plant's ramp-up, which is jointly owned by the massive Chinese nickel and steel company Tsingshan, is yet unknown.
According to CEO Christel Bories, "it's a complex plant," in a statement. "The challenge is always, will we be able to reach the nominal capacity, and when?"
Eramet, a company that manufactures manganese, nickel, and mineral sands abroad, experimented with several technologies for more than ten years before deciding to create a method mostly internally.
Part of the intricacy of DLE is the requirement to customise the extraction process for each unique brine deposit, as they differ in terms of the concentration of metals, including lithium.
The effectiveness of Eramet's plan will take time to determine, according to industry consultant Joe Lowry. "The proof will be sustained consistent production of battery quality product, and it is too early to say this will happen with any degree of certainty."
As hundreds of workers in red thermal jackets visited the facility last week, engineers informed Reuters that the first batch of brine will not be ready for the direct extraction phase until August.
Five hours' drive from the closest town, wild vicuna, which resembled llamas, ran about the location at a height of 4,000 metres (13,100 feet).
Eramet's DLE is based on a specially designed substance that, like a sponge, absorbs lithium from brine and is housed inside a series of blue tanks, each large enough to accommodate an SUV. Then, impurities such as table salt, or sodium chloride, may be substantially removed by washing.
The substance, known as a sorbent, produces 90% lithium instead of 40% or 50% in evaporation ponds and functions at room temperature, in contrast to certain DLE forms that may need to be heated. With this process, Eramet can make a tonne of lithium carbonate in a week as opposed to a year using conventional techniques.
In the end, Eramet intends to pump brine continuously from 20 adjacent wells that are 400 metres (1,312 feet) deep. Prior to that, it needs to complete the crucial commissioning stage.
Proper opening of pipeline valves is necessary. Computers and thousands of sensors need to synchronise. Temperature fluctuations must be avoided in an evaporating chamber with a spaceship-like design.
Engineer Soledad Gamarra explained, "You go step by step, making sure you can get to the next phase." "There's the option to take pauses, but we really don't want that to happen."
Eramet's method seeks to recycle 60% of the water, with the potential to reach 80%. This reflects the industry's objective to counter the issue surrounding the substantial amounts of water needed by various DLE, particularly in desert regions. More than 98% of the water used by International Battery Metals, which is about to start DLE in Salt Lake City in the U.S. state of Utah, is recycled.
According to some environmentalists, Eramet's initiative represents the most recent danger to hitherto unexplored salt flats.
"They are a perfect system of equilibrium, of life," stated Salta activist Mara Puntano, who works on behalf of indigenous groups.
In addition to seeking accreditation under the strict guidelines of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, Eramet plans to reduce chemical and water usage at a $800 million second facility.
"Technologically speaking, phase two will be a big step forward," stated John Li, the head of Tsingshan's South America division, in an interview.
According to them, Tsingshan and Eramet will look for buyers throughout Asia, including China. Bories stated Eramet had a good margin, with current prices more than double its cash expenses per tonne, despite a glut of supply of lithium that has lowered prices and led some mining firms to pull back.