Lithium: “Fast forward to feasibility rather than overestimate resources”
The postgraduate director of Lithium at the Universidad Austral, José de Castro, believes that the lack of experience and progress in post-exploration work have brought investors doubts.
– In Argentina, since when is lithium explored?
-Lithium was explored and produced since the 1930s in Córdoba, San Luis and Catamarca from pegmatitas, and with a totally different business vision in the world. A first inflection was in the mid-1990s when FMC decided to advance in the Dead Man’s salary due to the imminence of the closure of its mine in North Carolina. There, between FMC (today Livent), Sociedad Chilena del Lithio (Abermarle) and Soquimich (SQM) the brine era began, although the lithium boom related to battery expectations started in the second half of this century and has Come so far.
– What are the steps of a lithium exploration stage?
-The lithium exploration stages are atypical compared to those of conventional mining in the case of brines. Being a mineral resource dissolved in liquid, its exploration is related to hydrogeology and is often not well understood by conventional miners. The main success factors in lithium exploration lie in the potential for further processing. That is the reason that the resources existing today exceed 1000 years of potential use. The value of rapidly advancing to feasibility must be emphasized rather than overestimate resources. Even so, there is a lot of work to be able to take reserves, since the hydrogeological models that define a possible production have not been sufficiently evolved to define many context issues.
– Regarding investments, what smaller percentage may it require compared to the exploration of a small metal project?
-Based on the above, there is an inertial industrial practice that leads to over investing in those tasks that are comfortable or known for exploration, such as drilling and sampling, mapping, etc. If the relevant learning curve is taken, I believe that the exploration of lithium in brines, compared to a similar ROI and gold investment project, requires much less than half in exploratory investment and perhaps the same in process definition or metallurgy.
– How many lithium exploration projects are currently in the country, in which there are advances and with plans to continue exploring?
-The number of companies that have explored in the last 15 years have exceeded one hundred. Disappearing, changing names and recomposing some projects today there are 23 companies in early stages, 8 in advanced exploration, 4 with feasibility analysis, 5 in pilot piloting, 2 in construction and two companies in production. Since FMC in the ’90s only one company that is Sales de Jujuy de Orocobre was launched.
– What are the advantages and disadvantages of exploring lithium compared to those of exploring a metal project?
-The fundamental facts of the amount of work and investment are theoretically minor and the risks of discovery are substantially lower in the cases of the brines of the lithium triangle. The lack of progress in subsequent work and lack of experience have brought doubt in the lithium from investors and that makes it today unreasonably complex.
– What is the short-term outlook for lithium exploration?
-I think that what has been called the Gartner curve is called the phase of interest reduction, although the market in the next 3 to 5 years will evolve into an industry with a different degree of maturity and similar to high-value chemicals of production. The emphasis for our country is to think strategically and encourage the early progress of the existing so as not to miss the opportunity again. In the last 5 years we have lost important opportunities that were taken mainly by Australian companies.