The development of a lithium project in Argentina
ERAMET is developing a project to produce lithium from its deposit located in the Andean Cordillera of the Salta province, North West of Argentina, 3,800 meters above sea level.
Lithium is a versatile metal, essential in a variety of end-market applications such as energy storage, which is set to be a key challenge for the next century. In 2025, the battery market is expected to represent over half of lithium demand versus roughly a third in 2014. More broadly, the global lithium market is expected to more than double in size by 2025, according to analysts and key industry players.
The Centenario-Ratones deposit contains a significant level of resources, supporting an annual industrial production level of 20,000 tons of lithium carbonate for decades. ERAMET has developed an innovative Direct Extraction Process to extract the lithium contained in the brine; this process is lower-cost and more environmentally-friendly than the conventional evaporation method of obtaining lithium. The proprietary technology was developed by ERAMET’s leading Research and Development (“R&D”) Center, ERAMET Research (based near Paris, France) in partnership with the French Petroleum and Renewable Energy Institute (IFP Energies Nouvelles).
In 2016, the ERAMET Lithium Project will enter the last phase of its development. After two years of development and optimization studies at lab scale and through continuous piloting, the Direct Extraction Process will be piloted at an industrial scale this year to finalize engineering studies and qualify the product with our future clients.
ERAMET aims to become a major player in the lithium industry before the end of the decade.
A lithium deposit was identified by ERAMET on Centenario-Ratones salt lake in 2012. Exploration campaigns enabled to identify deep lithium-bearing brine resources in volumes and quality, allowing an an industrial production of 20,000 tons of lithium carbonate for many decades.
The total surface area of the deposit, discovered by ERAMET, spans more than 500 km2 and the drainable resource area covers c.260 km2, with a possible extension to the North of the deposit. Exploration campaigns identified deep lithium-bearing brine resources in significant volumes and quality, supporting an annual industrial production of 20,000 tons of lithium carbonate for decades. This would represent a 10+ % global market share currently.
ERAMINE SUDAMERICA S.A, 100% subsidiary of ERAMET, owns the mining concessions of the deposit area which cover the right to explore and extract lithium and associated minerals. The mining contract with the Salta Province was signed in April 2014 and covers all phases of mining project: exploration, feasibility study and exploitation across the whole mine life.
Salta Province is an established lithium and borates mining region which ranked #17 out of 124 regions all over the world in the 2014 Fraser Institute’s mining investment attractiveness index. (lien vers etude)
ERAMET’s Centenario-Ratones deposit is fully accessible with limited need for new infrastructure:
- Logistics, site access and product exporting is done via the existing road network which is used daily by inhabitants and currently producing mining companies in the region.
- An existing natural gas supply pipeline is located 100km North of the project at Pocitos, with sufficient capacity to supply the industrial plant.
- Fresh water is available on site.
Owning a good quality deposit is necessary but not sufficient to become a significant player in the lithium industry. A process suited to the resources of the deposit is also mandatory.
Thanks to its leading R&D center, ERAMET Research (located near Paris, France), ERAMET has developed an innovative Direct Extraction Process in partnership with IFP Energies Nouvelles which is well adapted to the resources of the Centenario-Ratones deposit. The process is lower-cost and more environmentally friendly than the conventional evaporation process used to extract lithium.
ERAMET’s Direct Extraction Process works as follows: the brine is pumped out of the deposit and goes through ERAMET’s proprietary Extraction Material, which only captures lithium and is insensitive to the other elements contained in the brine. The lithium-depleted brine is sent back to the salar, while the lithium trapped in the Extraction Material is released and then transformed into lithium carbonate through a simple refining process.
The Direct Extraction Process presents major benefits compared to conventional lithium evaporation processes and paves the way for a more environmentally-friendly and economic production of lithium over the coming decades. Thanks to this process:
- The deposit is better valued as the process yield is twice the yield of the conventional evaporation process. Half the lithium resources are then need to produce the same annual quantity of lithium carbonate.
- The hydric balance of the deposit is better preserved because the brine is sent back to the salar after lithium extraction.
- The plant production will be more flexible. The production lead time will be significantly reduced compared to the 18 months required by the conventional evaporation process.
- The plant will require less reagents and less energy, will not produce any chemical waste and its environmental footprint will be twenty times smaller than that of a conventional process.
The development of a new process is essential because the conventional evaporation process has important environmental and economic impacts. It implies high CAPEX levels to build the large evaporation ponds, a lithium recovery rate half of that for the Direct Extraction process, a huge amount of chemical reagents required, a large amount of residues produced and a major impact on the hydric balance of the salar as the pumped brine is totally evaporated and not returned to the salar.
Beyond the environmental qualities of the Direct Extraction Process, ERAMET is committed to continue to pursue the highest environmental and social standards within the industry, in compliance with its Sustainable Development Policy.
ERAMINE SUDAMERICA, a 100%-owned subsidiary of ERAMET in Argentina, maintains a constant and active dialog with all our stakeholders: local communities, provincial administration and representatives, national administration and representatives, etc.
In addition, through various programmes, ERAMINE SUDAMERICA is committed to having the maximum positive impact on local communities:
- Local community employment (nearly half of current workforce comes from the nearest villages and the rest from Salta City).
- Organization of training sessions for local communities to help them diversify their economic activities and revenues.
- Re-introduction of quinoa as an alternative income for local communities (the first harvest was collected in early 2015).
- Assistance with the construction of a local waste landfill, multi-purpose facility for the school of the nearest village and a “ride-for-free” programme.
Quinoa culture re-introduction test in February 2015 © Christophe Thillier / ERAMET