Lithium some background and a reflection regarding tenders

Andrés Soto-Bubert1, Vlamir Muñoz1, Roberto Acevedo*1

Facultad de Ingeniería y Tecnología

Universidad San Sebastián

Bellavista 7.  Postcode 8420524

Región Metropolitana


I.- Overture:

          A great and rather intense debate is going on in Chile with regards to Lithium in view of the many applications in due progress all over the world. Chile is indeed a small country having a rather fragile economy.    We have managed so far by exploiting metallic and non-metallic resources; however, the overall situation due to the pandemic and social disturbances have increased our debt significantly.   There are, of course, some additional problems to overcome if the country and its citizens wish to improve the quality of their lives. We certainly need to attract new income sources and develop a comprehensive and effective strategy to create the opportunities to open our economy to new investments and simultaneously to enlarge our critical mass of professionals to produce highly competitive goods to both exports and compete with the country of the so-called first world.    Countries such as the United States of America, China, Russia, India and the European Community have developed over the decades highly creative strategies to compete in the world market successfully. 

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The discussion is ongoing in Chile, and there is not a sensible agreement about how to deal with our resources in a sensible way to increase the quality of life of the citizens.    We have thought about these issues, and our conclusions are discussed in the text below. 

*To whom the correspondence should be addressed

II.- Some reflections and ideas in discussion.

Lithium generally occurs in three forms: as Pegmatites (Spodumene, Amblogonite, Eucryptite, Petalites, Lepidolites), as brine (salt flats) and finally in sedimentary rocks (clays, evaporite rocks and volcanic tuff). Of these possibilities in brines, its more significant presence in nature is observed, highlighting Chile, Argentina and Bolivia as the countries that present the primary brine deposits in salt flats.   Chile is one of the world’s largest lithium exporters and has a high percentage of the world’s lithium reserves. Nevertheless, they are the Pegmatites, which, at the world level, contribute in a more significant proportion to the production of Lithium in the world, with 55%, while brines contribute approximately 45%.

The largest producer in Australia with a market share associated with Pegmatites of 48% by 2020, while the Atacama salt flat contributes 29% of world production through two companies (SQM, Albermarle). In the region of Atacama, lithium production is by the conventional method of solar pools (brines)

These solar pools are separated through the fractional precipitation process, where lithium-rich brines are extracted, and potassium chloride and boric acid are produced as a by-product. A smaller salt flat is Maricunga, which in Chile also has an interesting lithium content, followed by Pedernales.

In general, the Lithium generated in Chile and Argentina (Salar del Hombre Muerto) has low production costs when compared to brines generated in other latitudes; however, the production time is much longer since solar evaporation is a production process. of energy “free” but slow. These evaporative processes allow the product to be obtained in one to two years, while a chemical-mining plant, for example, associated with Pegmatite, does so in one to two months.

The brine, after the evaporation and fractional precipitation processes, manages to concentrate up to approximately 6-7% by weight of Lithium in solar pools, to subsequently produce lithium carbonate or hydroxide in chemical plants.

It is necessary to emphasize that the Atacama brines with which Lithium is produced have different compositions of Lithium and other species in solution, such as sodium ions, potassium, magnesium, chlorine and sulfate, among others

The brine is provided by a large number of productive wells, which provide a certain brine flow and with a determined composition in each case. These brines must be combined in such a way that each ion satisfies certain composition ranges if production by solar evaporation route is desired; that is, the brines have restrictions in their composition, and therefore the brine to be used is not just anyone if proper processing conducive to producing Lithium

If the brine is used, for example, rich in sulfate, one of the ions present in solution, the solar pools do not provide the desired evaporation route; that is, other salts precipitate in the pools that do not allow Lithium to be obtained in this way, generating challenges in the production process

The Atacama salt flat has an appreciable amount of brines with wells with a high sulfate content, so when resources and reserves are calculated, it is not so direct to establish how much of that brine, using these processes can be conducive to lithium production. It may be necessary to modify processes in the future depending on the abundance of the ions that make up the brines in these salt flats. Similarly, the depth of the salt-flat and, therefore, its resources and reserves are not well established. Its value is an estimate. The depth of the salt flat must be specified and transparent since the way of estimating the resource (depth of the salt flat) is not rigorous

Lithium carbonate has greater industrial use than lithium hydroxide today. Around 71% is used as input lithium carbonate and 24% lithium hydroxide. The other forms in which Lithium is marketed are metallic Lithium, butyl lithium, lithium bromide and brine concentrate containing lithium-ion, whose market is around 5%.

China is the main consumer and uses around 39% of total consumption. About 50% is used to make batteries. Japan consumes 26%, and South Korea 17%. Among these three Asian countries, consumption of approximately 93% worldwide is reached

The most important use of Lithium, and that is why its demand and price have increased in recent years, is the manufacture of rechargeable electric batteries. Among the main applications in this line are Electromobility for the design of light and heavy vehicles, e-bikes, scooters, among others. Electrical devices such as laptops, tablets, phones and others also require lightweight, rechargeable and portable batteries.

The main mining product in Chile continues to be copper. Lithium, despite being called “white gold”, represents a smaller mining market when compared to the red metal in Chile.   In the same way, it has other applications such as the manufacture of glass and ceramics, giving it mechanical properties avoiding glass fracture with heat. By incorporating Lithium in the composition of the glasses, they present a lower thermal expansion, lower fire temperature

It is also used as an additive in greases and lubricants, allowing applications at variable temperatures and conditions. Other uses are for air conditioning devices, the aluminium industry, chemical and metallurgy, life jackets, pharmaceuticals, and the manufacture of plastics and polymers.

Another use for which it is considered strategic is the use of one of its isotopes for the production of nuclear energy. In Chile, this application in nuclear reactors is not interesting from an industrial point of view since the country opted for other energy sources for its energy supply; however, the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission (CCHEN) is one of the Institutions that has historically expressed an opinion regarding the commercialization and production permits of the metal. Growing demand for Lithium is estimated in the next ten years, with more significant values ​​for lithium hydroxide. Some possible threats are the development of sodium batteries, a metal much more abundant than Lithium, but achieving mass production of this class of batteries may take some time and an estimate that projects a growing market for Lithium over the next ten years is reasonable

Regarding the tenders, which are in the public debate these days, it should be noted that in Chile, Lithium’s know-how is generally found in companies rather than in academia. Lithium mining is not trivial, and its processes are unrelated to conventional metal mining. Notwithstanding the previous, the exploitation methods used to obtain Lithium, its sustainability, how it affects the communities, and the retribution to them and the environment must be carefully reviewed.   Lithium production consumes water resources in desert areas, and the evaporation of water and its non-recovery obviously decreases brine inventories in the groundwater. At this point in the discussion, it is important to emphasize the existence of taxation (Royalty) that is applied to Lithium that is paid by the relevant, productive companies on this issue.

Lithium batteries use other components, and the assembly of a battery is done by several companies that generate its components. Producing batteries in Chile means competing with China and other manufacturers from emerging Asia, which have a developed industry, experience and are already very competitive.

In this area and sector, competitiveness is extremely demanding, and everything indicates that at the country level, we are at a marked disadvantage.

Proposing to manufacture batteries in Chile requires an explanation of how the industry of these goods could be developed competitively. In Chile, there is no experience, nor is there an industry associated with the manufacture of the components of a lithium battery or its components. Traditionally, Chilean mining concentrates metals and acts as a supplier of raw materials.

By virtue of the above, it is not trivial for business groups to bet and invest in the development of lithium batteries, given that competition with large-volume countries and economies carries with it high risks.

A series of concerns arise at this point, and as a result of these reflections: (a,) Is it possible for Chile, in a short time, to become a competitive country in this industry? (b) Do we have groups in innovation, development and technology transfer to reduce this gap? (c) Is there the will to move from speech to action in other resources, for example, such as Rhenium?

The number of concerns is significant, and we understand that we want to transform ourselves into a competitive economy and add value. There is a consensus on this; however, everything suggests that we are not prepared at this point in the discussion for an incursion into this sizeable market.

The question at the end of the day is that. ¿Can Chile produce better technologies than developed countries? If there is no conviction in the answer, the bet is unfeasible.



Prof. Dr. Roberto Acevedo Chile

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