It was discovered in 1817 and isolated for the first time as free metal in 1855 . The lithium has gathered momentum over the last years since the electric batteries boom. More of 80 % of the world reserves of this strategic material is concentrated in the salars of the Puna. Thus , our country could become the central actor in the upcoming energetic revolution.
The lithium is the third lightest element in Mendeléiev’s periodic table and plays the leading role in a true revolution which will completely transform the energy and transport sections as they are currently known. It is a white metal with very electroactive characteristics ; that is to say that it can form compounds capable of storing a large amount of energy per unit of weight . “ The society is able to replace oil as the main source of energy to power cars and any household appliance of massive consumption. To achieve this, an efficient way of storing energy is required and the lithium batteries are best suited to meet this need”, Arnaldo Visintin states. He is an expert in this type of technologies and works in the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physicochemical Investigations (INIFTA), dependent on the School of Exact Sciences of the National University of La Plata (UNLP). How is this strategic material extracted ? Mauro de la Hoz, Verónica Martínez and José Luis Vedia are investigators of the Bio and Geosciences Institute of NOA (IBIGEO) and of the National University of Salta (UNSa) and they explain the following in their report ; The lithium, from the salars to the mobile phones, “ the natural brines are the deposits with the highest lithium concentration as the element is found there dissolved as ion, in the underground waters of some salars together with potassium, magnesium and boron” The area known as the “Lithium Triangle“ includes the salar of Uyuni (Bolivia) in its northern vertex, the salar of Hombre Muerto (Argentina) in the south and the salar of Atacama (Chile) in the west and concentrates around the 85 % of the deposits for lithium evaporation in the planet .
A method of sustainable extraction
Up till now, the most common method of lithium extraction from brines has been performed through pumping the brine from beneath the salt crust and then deposit it in large shallow ponds that results in the sequential precipitation of the set of salts through evaporation process and the separation of lithium from the other components. The concentrated brine , rich in lithium chloride, is then subjected to purification and finally sodium carbonate is added to generate lithium carbonate demanded by the industrial market. This technology, though simple, is not environmentally sustainable as it is estimated that for each ton of obtained lithium carbonate it is necessary to evaporate between 0.5 and 2 million litres of water in an area like la Puna whose characteristic is aridity and lack of precipitation all the year round. The team led by Ernesto Calvo, director of the Institute of Chemistry-Physics of the Materials, Environment and Energy (INQUIMAE) of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) , has developed an electrochemical method of lithium extraction which does not consume water, does not require any chemical substances and has a relatively low energetic cost. How does it work? “ What we propose is to pump the brine to a reactor, where there are 2 electrodes that work as if they were a sponge that selectively captures the lithium ions and the clorure ions and the rest is pumped into the salar”, Calvo explains. The method has been patented by the Conicet and the exclusive rights of marketing were granted to Y-TEC, a joint enterprise comprising YPF (51 %) and the Conicet (49%).
Going beyond the extractivist model
Currently, the major challenge for Argentina ,however , does not lie on the lithium extractive stage but on the development of local production of cells for batteries. In the 90’s decade , the first exploitation project in the salar of Hombre Muerto was inaugurated by a US multinational FMC Lithium and its local subsidiary Minera del Altiplano. Our country has limited itself to export this mineral without any kind of value addition since then . In this regard, the investigator Federico Nacif, from the National University of Quilmes (UNQui) warns that “ the technological revolution in lithium batteries encouraged by the science and technology institutions of central countries makes us consider a regional strategy alternative to the granting of the resources for the exportation of commodities designed to supply far-off industrial developments “ “We are giving lithium away as if it were stone “,Arnaldo Visintin has recently stated in an interview as he explained how the oligopolistic characteristics of the international markets of the lithium batteries discourage the participation of new actors. “The batteries coming from China are low quality ones and we are unable to compete in this free market because they are sold at such a low cost that nobody else will be able to manufacture them.”, he regretted this while suggesting a course of action like the integration between the institutes of investigation and professionals of the region to form a Latin American group specialized in the production of this type of technology.
Towards batteries made in Argentina
Based on the coordinated work done by the Conicet and a series of institutes of investigation, it is possible for Argentina to tackle the local industrialization of lithium with enthusiasm. In this regard , many national bodies and institutions are devoted to this,like the INIFTA, the INQUIMAE, the Laboratory of Sustainable Energies (LaES) of the National University of Córdoba (UNC) and the brand new Centre of Energies and Advanced Materials of the National University of Jujuy ( CEMAJu), located in the old quarter of Altos Hornos Zapla and directed by Victoria Flexer, the young Argentinian scientist repatriated by the Conicet. The aim is to develop ion-lithium batteries locally as they are accumulators of energy consisting of cells connected together. Each of them is made up of a cathode- an electrode with negative charge -, an anode – electrode with positive charge- and an electrolyte , composed of lithium salt that can capture the necessary ions to produce the electrochemical reaction that takes place between the catode and the anode. Daniel Barraco- director of LaES and coordinator of the project of the development of lithium batteries of Y-TEC- explains that “the density of accumulated energy” is an important factor in this type of technology. This calculation is the result of dividing, on the one hand, the amount of generated energy by the volumen of the cell and, on the other hand, the amount of energy by the weight of the cell.” What is needed, in both cases, is a high energetic density ; that is, much energy in little weight and little volume”, Barroco summarizes. Another challenge is the lifetime of the electric batteries that depends on the number of charging and discharging cycles . A cycle is completed when the 100% of the battery capacity is used up and therefore it is discharged. Regarding conventional ion lithium batteries , the aim is to develop models with 1,000 and 1,500 cycles, which is equivalent to 3 year-consumption under normal conditions of use, that is , daily charge and discharge. Finally, the specialist concludes , the goal to achieve is to make “ the cells , and therefore the batteries, the least unstable as possible so as to protect them against hitting and overloading “
Added value or genuine incomes
What is , from the economic point of view, the benefit left by lithium in Argentina and what could our country obtain in the future by the manufacture of cells and the batteries in situ? Barroco answers, “ The brine extracted from the salar is worth U$S 300 the ton . If it is concentrated and lithium carbonate is obtained at 99%, that is, the necessary quality; that is worth U$ S 6,000 the ton. If we were to have a metallic lithium (pure lithium ), its value would be U$S 6,000 the kilogram And the batteries for hybrid and electric cars with 10 kilograms of lithium carbonate, are U$S 10,000 and U$S 20,000 worth. If we drew an analogy with hydrocarbons industry , exporting lithium only as commodity would be equivalent to using the petroleum resource in our country, exporting the crude and, as there are no local oil refineries, it would mean importing oil, gasoil and other subproducts to be able to power our transport system. It does not seem to be sensible or intelligent to limit ourselves to a lithium extractionist model that will only have impact on the tax revenue to the provincial coffers for the purpose of royalties and participation as a minority partner of some projects. That is the case of the state Jujuy JEMSE (Jujuy Energy and Mining S.E.) in “Salts of Jujuy“ managed by a joint-venture comprising the Australian Orocobre and the Japanese Toyota Tsusho- and “Cauchari-Olaroz” – whose operators are the Canadian Lithium Americas and the Chilean Soquimich-. For Federico Nacif, instead , “the high profitability of the lithium components must be considered as a means to develop long-term technologies of energetic storage to meet domestic social demands like the expansion of public transport and renewable energies”.
The Y-TEC ‘s ambitious programme
With the scientific support of Conicet, Y-TEC has undertaken the role of articulation and technological planning of the sector. Its programme includes, on the one hand, the building of the pilot plant of extraction and purification of lithium clorure taking into account the model developed by the INQUIMAE ; and on the other hand, the installation of a pilot plant for the manufacture of elemental cells and the electrodes of the batteries that will possibly set up in Jujuy . Y-TEC has formed a strategic alliance with the Italian group FAAM Energy Saving Battery- pioneer in this subjectand can foresee the installation of future cells plant and the joint investigations of active materials, electrodes and specific equipment. “We have integrated our capabilities with those of the different institutes and investigation groups of the country . This alliance allows us to make it feasible the connection of our I+D agenda with a project of global scope. In this way we will keep ourselves at the frontier of knowledge and will be able to develop energetic solutions of value as well as projecting a really competitive industrial platform “,the general manager of Y-TEC, Santiago Sacerdote, stated enthusiatically. It appears that , if we follow this path, we will soon achieve tangible results and the country will be ready to play in the major leagues of the electric batteries industry.