BERISSO, Argentina- With 19 million tons, Argentina is after Bolivia the country with the largest lithium resources, and now, in the midst of the “white gold” boom, it wants to control the entire production chain: from extraction in the salt flats to the manufacture of electric cars.
Until now, lithium has been exploited in Argentina by two multinationals, the American Livent and the Australian Allkem Limited, which produce and export some 40,000 tons per year. But the YPF company, with a state majority, is preparing to enter the appetizing business.
“YPF has looked at lithium as an opportunity similar to Vaca Muerta,” Roberto Salvarezza, president of the subsidiaries YPF-Litio and YPF-Tec, said in an interview with AFP, comparing it to the enormous unconventional oil and gas field in Patagonia.
“We have very important resources, 40% of the lithium triangle,” which Argentina makes up with Bolivia and Chile. “Our lithium is competitive, because we have high evaporation rates and we also have low levels of pollutants,” said the manager.
Lithium is extracted from salt flats where, in addition to that mineral, there is sodium and other components such as magnesium, which are less present in Argentina than in Bolivia or Chile.
Its exports of 40,000 tons per year place Argentina in fourth place in the world, after Australia, China and Chile. But with some 20 projects from international companies underway, “the scenario is that in 2025 we will be at 200,000 tons. That is, the production capacity of lithium carbonate will be multiplied by five,” Salvarezza said.
YPF’s objective is to explore, and in the medium term to exploit the brines, export a part of what it produces and the other to be used for the manufacture of batteries.
“Surely in 2025 YPF will not have reached lithium carbonate. It is a complex process,” he acknowledged. However, the company plans to inaugurate a small lithium battery cell plant in December, with a capacity of 13 megawatt hours per year.
“There has always been a market for lithium, it has many applications. But with the energy transition and electromobility, massive interest has skyrocketed,” Salvarezza explained.
The business is at its best: producing a ton of lithium costs between 4,000 and 5,000 dollars, but it sells for 70,000, according to this manager.
“The electric vehicle totally changes technology. We have an electric motor, there is no gearbox, there is no transmission. The battery is the most expensive component of a car. If Argentina begins to see the battery as an important element, it is likely that in the moment of conversion of the electric car can be a supplier of part of the value chain of that automotive industry”, he referred.
Sought as a clean energy source, lithium is criticized, however, because its extraction from salt flats consumes large amounts of water, which can even leave nearby populations without that resource.
“You have to work very carefully so that the water that is extracted does not affect the groundwater that the populations use for their daily lives. The communities that are nearby work with livestock and agriculture,” Salvarezza said.
“The advantage of YPF as a national company is that it is not a company that extracts a resource and when it is finished, it leaves. YPF has been in the country for 100 years, it is going to stay and take care of the environmental liabilities,” he assured. .
The brines from which lithium is extracted in Argentina are located in the northern provinces, the most depressed.
“All technologies have pros and cons. The important thing is that there is a balance that benefits not only the country but also the population that lives there,” Salvarezza concluded.