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ECONOMY | 03-07-2024 22:41

New lithium plant inaugurated in Salta Province

French mining group Eramet and its Chinese partner Tsingshan inaugurate new lithium exploitation plant, an investment worth US$870 million.

French mining group Eramet and China's Tsingshan on Wednesday inaugurated a lithium production plant in Argentina to supply the booming electric car industry. 

The site in Centenario, in the northwestern province of Salta represents an investment of US$870 million, Eramet said.

"This event marks an important milestone, not only for our company, but also for the region, for Argentina and for the global energy transition metals market," said the French firm’s CEO, Christel Bories, at a press conference on Wednesday.

The plant is not a traditional mine, nor one of the environmentally damaging salt flats from which the metal used in electric batteries is normally extracted in South America's so-called ‘lithium triangle’ of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

Instead it uses an innovative "direct extraction" method known as DLE, according to Eramet, which has filed 12 patents on the technique.

The French firm says its technique is more efficient, quicker and places less pressure on local ecosystems by pumping much less water than used in the traditional manner based on the evaporation of brine.

This last point is crucial for the sector, whose environmental impact is often denounced by NGOs and specialists.

"Consideration of the social and environmental impact of lithium mining, especially in desert regions, has become a crucial parameter for the sustainability of mining projects," warned the annual CyclOpe global commodity report in mid-May.

Overseen by a joint venture named Ermaine (50.1 percent owned by the French firm, with 49.9 percent owned by Chinese company Tsingshan), the new plant in Centenario is expected to produce up to 24,000 tons of battery-grade lithium carbonate per year at full capacity, according to Bories – enough for 600,000 electric vehicle batteries.

Production is planned to start in November with 350 employees. 

"The world will need more and more sustainable metals to support a cleaner world in the future, a greener world. We are contributing to that, and this plant is a first step towards a greener future," Bories said at the press conference held in Salta City, which was not attended by national or provincial state officials.

Eramet owns the mining rights to a 560 square-kilometre concession in Salta Province. 
In 2021, when the firm announced it was reviving the project with Tsingshan, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Bories said the plant was expected to meet 15 percent of Europe's lithium needs.

With 9,600 tons produced last year, Argentina is the fourth-biggest global producer of lithium – which has been branded by some as "white gold" – after Australia (86,000 tons, mostly refined in China), Chile (44,000 tons) and China (estimated 33,000 tons). 


– TIMES/AFP

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