Without lithium, Li-on rechargeable batteries wouldn't be possible. Essential for the manufacture of both smartphones and electric cars, the market is now highly sought after and will become even more so in the coming decades. This opportunity has naturally led Eramet to invest in lithium mining. It took two years of mining exploration before our teams identified in 2012 the "salar" (salt desert) in Centenario-Ratones, an area of the Andes in the north-west of Argentina. After obtaining the concession and the mining rights in 2014, the mining licence was granted in 2019 following the approval of the Environmental and societal impact study. This progress is the result of the work carried out in situ by our two teams:
- In Salta, our subsidiary Eramine Sudamerica, which has around 40 employees (geologists, chemists, engineers, HR, safety managers, etc.) notably in charge of conducting pilot drilling and getting the project under way.
- In Buenos Aires, the Eramet teams, which are mainly in charge of preparing the technology calls for tenders in which various engineering, provision and construction specialists participate.
- 600,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE): estimate of global lithium demand in 2025, three times the 2018 volume.
- 9 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE): estimate of the site's total resources.
An innovative extraction process
Several years of laboratory testing and continuous monitoring have enabled the teams at Eramet Ideas to develop a new process for producing battery-quality lithium carbonate. Different to the conventional method (by evaporation), the process works in two phases:
- The use of an active solid to extract and concentrate the lithium. Developed by Eramet in liaison with IFP Énergies Nouvelles and Seprosys, this works like a sponge, capturing the lithium contained in the brine. Fresh water is then used to release the stored lithium. To further concentrate the metal obtained, two successive processes are then conducted: nanofiltration and reverse osmosis.
- Purification of the lithium, then reaction with sodium carbonate to convert it to lithium carbonate. Once filtered again and washed, it achieves the chemical quality of the finished product.
An advanced process
The extraction process developed by Eramet achieves an 85% yield over a processing period of just a few days. By comparison, the traditional evaporation procedure delivers less than 50% yield in 18 months.
Every effort has also been made to minimise the consumption of fresh water in the process by increasing the water recycling rate to the maximum possible, now reaching over 60%.
The involvement of local populations
The Lithium project spans a total surface area of 500 km2. This huge desert region, situated at an altitude of 3,800 m, is occasionally inhabited by around 15 people, the Puesteros. 50 km from there, the first village, Santa Rosa de Pastos Grandes, has a population of 300. From the very start of the project, Eramet's teams established in-depth dialogue with these various communities. Several members of the CSR (corporate social responsibility) team are continually present on the ground to handle development projects.
Our determined CSR approach has led to several concrete initiatives:
- Quarterly meetings with the populations concerned to inform them about the project's progress, as well as to understand – and respond to – any concerns they may have.
- Implementation of a programme to train environmental observers among local communities, in collaboration with the UCASAL (Université Catholique de Salta).
- Quinoa project: an ambitious initiative that has revived farming of this traditional grain in a region where this ancestral know-how had died out. Several pilot plots have been developed since the project was launched. A collection centre for quinoa productions has been built, while producers will be joining forces as part of a cooperative. The goal is to install the machines required for cleaning the grains to speed up the availability of production on the market. More than 100 people are involved in this project.
- A community organic garden project, which will give families living on the future production site access to fresh convenience goods, as well as pasture for their herds.
- Project to grow local services/suppliers/subcontractors: commitment by the Eramine CSR project on training, development and integration programmes for local subcontractors.
- 700 people will be recruited to construct the plant.
- 300 operators will be trained at a training centre directly incorporated into the site.