Without lithium, Li-on rechargeable batteries would not be possible. Essential for the manufacture of both smartphones and electric cars, this metal is already highly sought after – and will become even more so in the coming decades.
Eramet, wishing to become a benchmark player in metals for energy transition, has naturally invested in the exploitation of lithium. It took two years of mining exploration before our teams identified the "salar" (salt desert) in 2012 in Centenario-Ratones, an area of the Andes in the north-west of Argentina at an altitude of 3,800 meters. After obtaining the concession and the mining rights in 2014, the mining license 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 three teams:
- The team of on-site geologists based in La Bianca from 2010 to 2019;
- In Salta, 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 underway;
- 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.
A pilot plant was installed in early 2020, providing a real-world demonstration of the quality of the lithium carbonate end product, with a very high level of direct extraction efficiency (90%).
In November 2021, the Group launched the construction of its production plant with the signature of a partnership with Chinese steel group Tsingshan, the world’s leading producer of stainless steels. Tsingshan and Eramet are already partners within Weda Bay Nickel, a project developed in Indonesia. The construction of the plant began in early 2022.
In February 2020, the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process was conducted, pursuant to the ILO 169 Convention, in which the community expressed its support for the project (residents nearby the Centenario Lithium Project and the Kolla Andean Community of Santa Rosa de las Pastos Grandes in the Puna of Salta. The Secretary of Mining and Energy of Salta participated in this Community Assembly).
Later, in May 2022, the consent has been renewed during the Quarterly Assembly.
Eramine has been building relationships of trust since its exploratory stage with the surrounding residents and the Community of Santa Rosa de los Pastos Grandes, generating spaces for participation and involvement.
- 10 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE): estimate of the site's total resources.
- An estimated production of 24,000 tonnes LCE/year.
AN INNOVATIVE AND MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY EXTRACTION PROCESS
Several years of laboratory testing and continuous monitoring have enabled the teams at Eramet Ideas – the Group’s R&D center – to develop a new process for producing battery-quality lithium carbonate. The process is different to the conventional method (by evaporation), and works in two phases:
- The use of an active solid to extract and concentrate the lithium. Developed by Eramet in liaison with IFPEN (the French Institute of Petroleum and New Energies) 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 efficient process
The direct extraction process developed by Eramet achieves an 90 % yield at the pilot plant with a processing period of around a week. By comparison, the traditional procedure (based entirely on natural evaporation) delivers less than 50% yield in 18 months. Still in comparison to the traditional procedure, every effort has been made to minimize the consumption of fresh water in the process by increasing the water recycling rate to the maximum possible.
RESPONSIBLE WATER MANAGEMENT INTEGRATED INTO THE ACTIVITY
In this desert area of salars, water is a crucial issue. That is why Eramet has taken care to integrate responsible management of this resource right from the design stage of its process.
Compared with the conventional process, which uses natural evaporation, the direct extraction process developed by the Group requires half as much brine to be pumped out because of its very high yield (> 90%).
This process also requires fresh water to extract the lithium, which is captured in the salar and then recycled at a rate of over 60%.
After extraction of the lithium contained in the brine, it is returned to the subsoil by infiltration. Eramet is currently working on modelling the direct reinjection of brines into aquifers, based on the specific conditions of the Centenario-Ratones salar.
In parallel, Eramet Ideas' R&D teams are continuously working to improve the environmental efficiency of the process.
INVOLVEMENT OF LOCAL POPULATION GROUPS
The Lithium project site 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 closest village, Santa Rosa de Pastos Grandes, has a population of 250. 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 program 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 and which also helps to fight against malnutrition. Several pilot plots have been developed since the project was launched in 2014. 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, especially in the communities of Santa Rosa de los Pastos Grandes and San Antonio de los Cobres. 15 producers cultivate 3 ha of quinoa and this initiative has about 60 beneficiaries.
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 develop local services/suppliers/subcontractors: commitment by the Eramine CSR project on training, development and integration programs for local subcontractors.
The economic, social and societal benefits are significant for Argentina and the Salta region, as the overall investment will reach $600 million. During the construction phase of the plant, $390 million will be reinjected into the Argentine economy, and during the production phase (expected to begin in 2024), $2.9 billion will be reinjected into the national economy during the first twenty years of production.
97% local jobs
Creation of 280 direct jobs
45% of procurement made in Argentina
30% of the local community benefits from CSR projects