THE LITHIUM A strategic mineral

Versión español

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.