From the salt flats to the batteries

In the context of Argentine President Alberto Fernández’s visit to the Y-TEC (YPF-Tecnología) facilities in the Berisso district of Buenos Aires, Y-TEC President and former Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Roberto Salvarezza, assured that they are “making rapid progress with the industrial plant”. In this sense, he remarked that “the civil works of the industrial plant are finished”. Furthermore, the former Minister ensured that “in October the equipment will be arriving, and in December the industrial production of these cells for lithium batteries will be ready”.

When asked about the current lithium production process in Argentina, Salvarezza commented: “for years, at Y-TEC we have had a pilot plant that is working and producing cells with materials that are generated in our country, lithium carbonate, with carbon that can be used from sources obtained in the country”. He also added that, to this end, “we are supplying ourselves with lithium carbonate to manufacture the cells for next year from companies that are extracting lithium carbonate and exporting it”.

According to Salvarezza, “lithium is of enormous importance and we have a geopolitical dispute to get hold of this resource, which Latin America has, which the lithium triangle has, and we have to be players”. Yet, “at the same time, YPF is deploying a project through YPF Lithium, created last year by the company’s president, Pablo González, which will be dedicated to extraction in salt flats and the production of lithium carbonate”. This project, according to him, aims at a complete production “from the salt flats to the batteries”, with a “focus on environmental care and social articulation”.

When asked about YPF’s involvement in lithium, Salvarezza also stated that “YPF extracts gas and oil, but also produces, processes and industrialises lubricants, naphtha and fuels in our country”, and “we are thinking of doing the same for lithium”; “YPF will be in the salt flats extracting brine, but at the same time processing it to produce lithium carbonate”.

Final production and commercialization

Once these cells have been produced, the final production of the batteries will be carried out by different SME companies that have already been identified by Y-TEC, which will receive the final product for its commercialization.

As far as commercialisation is concerned, in a first stage there will be pilot projects to test the batteries, for stationary use and energy storage in small solar parks. One of these is Isla Paulino, in the town of Berisso, where the electricity will be generated by a solar park in addition to the lithium batteries. Then it will be tested in mobility applications, and will also be supplied to the army for mobile radars, thus displacing lead-acid batteries. 

Securing lithium and YPF Lithium

Argentina has the second largest lithium reserves in the world and is the world’s fourth largest lithium producer. However, although there are numerous projects under development, there are currently only two projects in production: Livent (Catamarca), and Sales de Jujuy (Jujuy).

As indicated by Salvarezza, “we are making arrangements for this first stage so that some of the companies that produce can provide us with the tonnes we need”. Salvarezza added that “in any case, this project is tied to a more ambitious one, that of YPF Lithium, YPF’s business unit that aims to compete in the exploration and production of lithium carbonate in northern Argentina. YPF Lithium is entering and has advanced negotiations with the provinces to hold concessions in the salt flats. YPF Lithium is working on the exploration and refining of the brine, and in turn on the subsequent industrialisation stage with Y-TEC”.

The plant and investment

This plant has an annual production capacity of 13MWh, which is equivalent to 1000 batteries for stationary storage of renewable energies, or about 50 for electric collectives, and will create 50 direct jobs.

The plant’s civil works, machinery and the production of electrode materials required investments of USD $770 million, of which the Ministry of Science and Technology contributed USD $210 million, while the University of La Plata and Y-TEC invested USD $280 million each.

Addressing cost concerns and profitability

One of the criticisms, or observations that the project received, is whether production will not represent a high cost due to the elements that must be imported, since lithium is only one of the components of these cells.

In this regard, Salvarezza explained that “we have chosen a technology that was developed a year ago, which is lithium iron phosphate, made up of non-polluting elements and with components that are accessible in the country”. As Salvarezza explained, “the iron is available in the country, the phosphate can be imported without difficulty from neighbouring countries such as Brazil, the electrolyte will also have to be imported because it is difficult to produce in Argentina, and the graphite, which is very accessible, comes from coke in YPF distilleries”.

When asked about the profitability of the YPF project, Salvarezza announced that “it can be in some niches a profitable resource. Electromobility is a future that is coming”. He also added that “it is a purely risky venture, but we have to make inroads and position ourselves in this niche. The interesting thing about Y-TEC’s initiative is that it will then stimulate other companies to manufacture the batteries”.

The agreement with Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB)

On another note, Salvarezza referred to the scientific-technological cooperation agreement between Y-TEC and Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) for the production of lithium-ion cells and batteries, previously signed on 28 July. As stressed by Salvarezza, “with Bolivia we share all the challenges of industrialising lithium, we are very interested in the development and technology of different materials used in batteries; we are also very interested in being able to reach direct extraction methods that avoid excessive water loss”. Finally, he announced that “we are on a path that takes time, but that leads from knowledge to technological applications and technological sovereignty”.

About the Author: Felipe Gaitán Michelsen