French Eramet opens lithium mine with Chinese partner in Argentina

French mining group Eramet and its Chinese partner Tsingshan have inaugurated a major lithium mine site in Argentina. Lithium is the white metal essential for the energy transition, particularly in most automotive electric batteries.

The plant in Centenario in Salta’s northwestern province represents an 870 million-dollar investment. Eramet, of which the French state is one of the shareholders, will use an innovative process at the plant, namely Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE), which has yielded 12 patents filed by Eramet.

More eco friendly

Eramet believes that DLE enables better recovery efficiency, higher speed, and less pressure on ecosystems by pumping much less water than in the traditional evaporation ponds or ‘salars’ encountered in the lithium triangle in Latin America, namely Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile.

Natural lithium is found in brines 400 meters underground at the Centenario site. Still, thanks to the DLE technologies, the site will achieve a 90% recovery rate of lithium, which is 50% more efficient than the conventional natural evaporation method.

It also reduces the production lead time to one week compared to the 12 to 18 months required for the traditional evaporation method, and 60% of the freshwater used to extract lithium will be recycled.

Managed by the joint Eramine company (comprising Eramet for 50.1% and Tsinghan for 49.9%), the plant is expected to produce “up to 24,000 tons a year of battery-grade lithium carbonate at full capacity,” says Christel Bories, CEO of the French group that owns mining rights to a 560 km² concession in the Andean region.

Second plant

Production will start in November with 350 employees. In a year, it will be possible to equip 600,000 vehicles with batteries, according to Eramet. By early 2025, a second plant would generally be built in Argentina, a few kilometers from the first, to produce 30,000 tons of lithium annually.

That plant will also cost around 800 million euros. Still, Eramet hopes to capitalize on a recent economic reform bill passed in Argentina’s Senate, which includes tax sweeteners and ease and access to currency exchange markets.

At the same time, Eramet is positioning itself on European lithium from geothermal water in Alsace with its partner, Electricité de Strasbourg, and on a lithium-ion battery recycling project carried out in Dunkirk with Suez.

Argentina increases production

According to CyclOpe’s resource guide, with an output of 9,600 tons in 2023, Argentina is the world’s fourth largest producer of lithium, after Australia (86,000 tons, mainly refined in China), Chile (44,000 tons), and China (33,000 tons).

According to Bloomberg, Argentina wants to increase its annual lithium capacity by 79%. For example, the province of La Rioja is now also pushing to tempt prospects. Last year, it passed a controversial law allowing the rescindment of mining acreage from any owners it deems to be land speculators uninterested in exploration.

Eramet has been discredited several times for various ecological scandals, including in Peru, Gabon, and Argentina, where their sites threatened protected tropical forests or indigenous communities.


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