The Olaroz lithium operation is the first of its kind in over twenty years and hosts a JORC/NI43-101 compliant, high quality, low-cost and long life resource, capable of sustaining continuous production for forty-plus years with only 15% of the defined resource extracted.
November 2014 marked the commencement of primary lithium carbonate production for SDJ’s) 17,500 metric tonne battery-grade lithium carbonate plant at Salar de Olaroz, which is located in the Puna region of northern Argentina. The plant was fully commissioned and commercial production commenced in late January 2015. The cornerstone lithium brine project was founded in a joint venture agreement between Australian ASX and TSX listed company Orocobre, Japanese trading company Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC) and the Mining Company of the provincial government of Jujuy, (JEMSE).
The operation has been designed for capacity expansion with additional stage developments planned in-line with market demand. Recent exploration at Olaroz has discovered the potential for significant additional brine resource which is supportive of the future plans to increase production capacity while still maintaining a sustainable long life resource.
The location of the Olaroz Lithium operation is favourable in terms of both environmental operating conditions and local infrastructure. Very limited rainfall combined with dry, windy conditions enhances the brine-evaporation process. The project is also serviced with continuous gas, stable electricity, and paved highways. Three major seaports, Buenos Aires in Argentina and Antofagasta and Iquique in Chile are serviced by various international carriers and are easily accessible by road. The fulltime workforce at Olaroz is comprised of ~90% of the local Jujuy community.
As defined in the 2011 Definitive Feasibility Study (DFS) of Olaroz, the estimated measured and indicated resource of 1,752 million cubic metres of brine at 690 mg/L Lithium, 5,730 mg/L Potassium and 1,050 mg/L Boron at the Olaroz Project equates to 6.4 million tonnes of lithium carbonate and 19.3 million tonnes of potassium chloride based on 5.32 tonnes of lithium carbonate being equivalent to 1 tonne of lithium and 1.91 tonnes of potash being equivalent to one tonne of potassium. Subsequent independent modelling has indicated improved lithium brine grades of 825 mg/l, allowing for an increase in the projected annual lithium carbonate production. Olaroz’s Mg:Li ratio is also low, which is desirable for processing, at around 2.8.
Recent exploration at Olaroz has discovered the potential for significant additional brine resource which is supportive of the future plans to increase production capacity while still maintaining a sustainable long life resource.
The processing method at Olaroz is based on existing brine treatment operations with modifications tailored to suit the brine chemistry and climatic conditions at Olaroz. Sales de Jujuy’s lithium operation involves extracting lithium-rich brine from borefields drilled on salar. The brine is transferred to a series of evaporation ponds where it is concentrated through the use of solar radiation. The concentrated brine is then processed through a liming plant to precipitate out the magnesium and then transferred into additional magnesium-removed ponds. The magnesium-removed brine is then fed into additional evaporation ponds before being processed through the lithium carbonate plant circuit. Once inside the lithium carbonate plant the brine then fed through a series of further concentrators, micronizes and drying units which in turn produce the >99.5% battery-grade lithium carbonate product.
The Olaroz Lithium Project has been designed to have a minimal environmental footprint. The following aspects of the Olaroz operation highlight how the principles of sustainability have been managed within the project:
- The process is designed to have a high processing recovery of lithium. With its low unit costs, the process will result in low cut-off grades which will maximise resource recovery.
- The process route is designed with a zero liquid discharge design. All waste products are stored in permanent impoundments (the lined evaporation ponds). At the end of the project life the ponds will be capped and returned to a similar profile following soil placement and planting of original vegetation types.
- Brine is extracted from wells with minimum impact on freshwater resources outside the salar. Because the lithium is in sedimentary aquifers with relatively low permeability, drawdowns are limited to the salar itself. This is different from halite hosted deposits where the halite bodies have very high near surface permeability and the drawdown cones can impact on water resources around the Salar affecting the local environment.
- Energy used to concentrate the lithium in the brine is solar energy. The carbon footprint is lower than other processes.
- The technology developed has a very low maximum fresh water consumption of <20 l/s, which is low by industry standards.
- Sales de Jujuy S.A. is also committed to the ten principles of the sustainable development framework as developed by The International Council on Mining and Metals. The company has an active and well-funded “Shared Value” program aimed at the long term development of the local people.
Additional to the project design the Company also conducts regular environmental monitoring programs which the local communities and stakeholders are welcomed to participate in.