South American lithium production is the backbone of the lithium supply chain and will continue to play an important role in the years ahead along with growing demand for lithium from the electric vehicles (EV) sector, panelists said during the Lithium Supply & Markets conference on Tuesday October 27.
The conference panelists agreed that South America has the scale and the low-cost production capabilities to support growing demand for the ultralight metal.
“Currently South America is providing more than 50% of the world’s production of lithium so we’re already playing a big role in the lithium industry. Also, talking about brine [resources] the cost advantage of brine projects against spodumene is also an advantage,” Lithium Americas president for South America operations Gabriel Rubacha said.
“The other aspect that I think is playing a role is that, in the case of Argentina, the country has made lots of effort to provide incentives for mining projects in general and lithium projects in particular,” Rubacha added.
Mining is a key sector for Argentina’s development, according a government spokesperson who gave a presentation at the Fastmarkets conference on Tuesday.
The spokesperson highlighted Argentina’s two lithium projects in operation, another two in construction phase, 10 in pre-feasibility stage and an additional 10 in the advanced exploration stage.
“There are more than 40 projects in initial exploration stage,” he added.
“South America hosts over 60% of the resources of lithium, when the world needs to think where to source lithium there are really two areas: South American and Australian resources …[resources] in other parts of the worlds are not [really] relevant,” Neo Lithium Corp president and chief executive officer Waldo Perez said.
Lithium Americas is advancing the Cauchari-Olaroz lithium project in northern Argentina in partnership with China’s Gangfeng Lithium. The project is around 50% complete and, once operational, is expected to produce 40,000 tonnes per year of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE).
Fastmarkets understands that the Cauchari-Olaroz project will be a low-cost source of battery-grade lithium carbonate and is expected to come online no earlier than the first half of 2022.
Lithium Americas is also developing the 100%-owned Thacker Pass lithium project in the US state of Nevada.
Meanwhile, Sigma Lithium is developing a hard-rock lithium deposit at its Grota Do Chirillo site in Brazil. The facility is currently in pilot production and once operational, the junior miner targets annual production of approximately 220,000 tonnes of spodumene per year.
Another Argentina-based project in Catamarca, a brine-based lithium site developed by Neo Lithium, is in pilot production stage.
‘Baby steps’ needed in Bolivia’s lithium sector
Asked about the role of Bolivia in the South American lithium triangle following the recent presidential election of socialist candidate Luis Arce, Perez said that the amount of lithium resources in Bolivia is still hard to define and they have high impurities.
“No technology today can produce lithium from Bolivia at any cost,” he said.
“Bolivia is far from any production even if the government becomes very productive,” he added.
Rubacha agreed that Bolivian lithium is far from entering production due to lack of government support.
He also said that before bringing the entire lithium value chain to Bolivia, “baby steps” are needed to firstly start production.