European reflections of the lithium triangle

29 May 2018

The intersection of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina forms an area referred to frequently as the lithium triangle. Known for high quality salt flats, including Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, Chile’s Salar de Atacama, and Argentina’s Salar de Arizaro. This region produces more than 60% of the world’s lithium and it is estimated that 75% of the known lithium, resources are contained in the triangle.

The drive for the electrification of vehicles has made lithium, a key component of the lithium ion battery, along with cobalt and nickel, one of the most sought-after metals in the world. This has increased lithium demand significantly.

Against this backdrop, the British Embassies in Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires approached IOM3 to provide a keynote speaker at meetings held as a side event to the Annual EXPOMIN show in Santiago and subsequently to lithium producers, investors and researchers based in Argentina. IOM3 fellow, Dr Chris Broadbent, Research Director at Wardell Armstrong International Ltd and Project Coordinator of the EU FAME project, was delighted to fly the flag for European lithium know how.

The EXPOMIN side event comprised of a seminar on innovations in the lithium supply chain. The event brought together public policy experience with high-level presentations on the state of the lithium industry in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, an overview of the global lithium market presented by Henry Sanderson, Commodities Correspondent at the Financial Times, as well as an account of recent innovations in the European lithium supply chain – presenting an update on recent European Research (especially FAME) on the processing of lithium micas and spodumene.

This meeting was one of the first opportunities for representatives of all three countries of the lithium triangle to participate together. It was agreed that the production of battery grade lithium would be crucial in future and that close co-operation was required between the mining companies and the battery manufacturers to ensure that future supply will continue to meet increasing demanding specifications of either lithium carbonate or hydroxide, which new generation batteries will require.

Following the seminar in Chile, a similar workshop was jointly organised by the British Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Inter-American Development Bank. 90 representatives from the Argentinian lithium sector attended this event, which was held at the Asociacion Argentina de Cultura Inglesa (AACI). Here, Oscar Wehtje from the London Metals Exchange (LME) presented the LME’s exciting plans to include a lithium product as part of their portfolio of traded commodities by mid-2019.

A discussion concluded this workshop, in which it was understood that working with battery developers and manufacturers would become increasingly important. It was also recognised that there is a role for lithium production from hard rock minerals in Argentina in addition to lithium production from brines, as not only can purity be more easily controlled with the hard rock operations compared to brine but, although operational expenditure is usually significantly higher for hard rock operations, capital expenditure and, most importantly, time to production, is likely to be lower for hard rock lithium mineral operations compared to production from brine.

There was an added opportunity to see research into next-generation batteries first hand with Professor Fabio Saccone’s research group at the Y-TEC Research Labs in Berisso, just outside Buenos Aires and the innovative lithium (production) cell developments spear-headed by Professor Ernesto Calvo at the University of Buenos Aires.

These visits highlighted the value of cooperation between European industry and academia involved with lithium research with partners in the Latin America region. The initiative undertaken by the UK embassies in collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank is to be applauded and, hopefully, this represents the start of many such bilateral events between Latin American and European partners.

Dr Chris Broadbent CEng CEnv FIMMM