With 19 million tons, Argentina ranks only behind Bolivia as the country with the most lithium and now, at the height of the "white gold boom," it aspires to control the whole production chain from its extraction in the salt flats to the manufacture of electric cars.
Until now Argentina’s lithium has been exploited by two multinationals, Livent of the United States and Australia’s Allkem Limited, who produce and export some 40,000 tons annually. But YPF (where the state has a majority share package) is preparing to enter the succulent business.
"YPF sees lithium as an opportunity similar to Vaca Muerta," Roberto Salvarezza, president of the YPF-Litio and YPF-Tec branches and a former Science and Technology minister, said in an interview, comparing it to the enormous shale oil and gas deposits in Patagonia.
"We have very important natural resources, 40 percent of the lithium triangle [which Argentina forms with Bolivia and Chile]. Our lithium is competitive because we have high rates of evaporation and also low levels of contamination," pointed out the executive.
The lithium is extracted from salt flats which, apart from that mineral, contain sodium and other components like magnesium, less so in Argentina than in Bolivia or Chile.
The annual exports of 40,000 tons place Argentina fourth in the world behind Australia, China and Chile but with 20 projects of international companies in the pipeline, "the scenario is for 200,000 tons by 2025, thus multiplying fivefold the capacity to produce lithium carbonate," indicated Salvarezza.
The YPF objective is to explore the brine deposits and exploit them in the medium term, exporting part of the production while destining the rest to the manufacture of batteries.
"YPF will surely not have arrived at lithium carbonate by 2025. It is a complex process," he recognised. Nevertheless, the company plans to inaugurate in December a small plant for making lithium battery cells with an annual capacity of 13 MWh (megawatts/hours).
"There has always been a lithium market, it has many applications. But with the energy transition and electromobility, the interest is massive," explained Salvarezza.
The business is at a peak moment – producing a ton of lithium costs US$4,000 to US$5,000 but it sells for US$70,000, according to the state executive.
"The electric vehicle is changing technology totally. We have electric motors without gearboxes or transmission. The battery is the most expensive component of a car. If Argentina begins to see the battery as an important element, it is probable that in the period of conversion to electric cars, it can become a supplier of part of the value chain of that auto industry," Salvarezza continued.
Sought as a source of clean energy, lithium has nevertheless been criticised because its extraction from the salt flats consumes huge quantities of water, which could even deprive neighbouring populations of that resource.
"You have to work very carefully so that the extraction does not affect the water tables used by local populations in their daily lives. The nearby communities live off animal husbandry and agriculture," said Salvarezza.
"The advantage of YPF as a national company is that it is not an enterprise which extracts a resource and then takes off when it is exhausted. YPF has been around in this country for 100 years and it’s going to stay on and take care of the environmental liabilities,” he assures.
The salt flats from which the lithium is extracted are located in Argentina’s depressed northern provinces.
"All technologies have their pros and cons. The important thing is to draw a balance which benefits not only the country but also the local population," concluded Salvarezza.
By Nina Negrón, AFP