Global lithium sector eyes Argentina testing

STORY: On a dusty plain in northern Argentina, work is underway to transition to a green energy future.

These black pipes fill a huge tank with salty brine sucked deep from the ground. It’s part of an $870 million project in Salta province.

The brine contains a white metal: lithium, which is essential for producing batteries for electric vehicles.

French mining company Eramet is trying to use an innovative technique known as direct lithium extraction, or DLE, in a race for cleaner, faster and cheaper ways to extract the metal using less water.

Unlike traditional methods, no brine tanks the size of a football pitch are created in which lithium would accumulate after the liquid evaporates in the sun.

Jean-Baptiste Hogard manages the company’s lithium activities.

“With this technology, we will recover 90% of the lithium content, whereas the traditional approach is 40-50% when we use evaporation.”

The technology has not yet been tested on a large scale, so global competitors are watching to see how it performs.

Pipeline valves must open properly. Computers must synchronize with several thousand sensors. A spaceship-shaped vapor chamber must avoid temperature fluctuations.

Eramet plans to mine its first tonne of lithium carbonate in November and increase production to 24,000 metric tonnes per year by mid-2025.

This could help Argentina close the gap with Chile, Latin America’s largest lithium producer.

Despite a lithium oversupply that has driven down prices and forced some miners to pull out of production, Eramet’s CEO said the company has a healthy margin and current prices are more than twice the cash cost per tonne.