A well-deserved rest

As of August, the Olacapato direct lithium extraction pilot plant has gone into hibernation while it awaits a fresh round of tests: an excellent opportunity to reveal more about everything that’s gone into it.

Built in record time, including seven months to complete the engineering and seven for assembly, this project was quite a challenging one for the team. They had to overcome all kinds of obstacles, including harsh winters and high altitudes, several rounds of derisking—trial and error tests to clear up all potential risksand a steep learning curve, the basis for various operating manuals and procedures. After this process, the direct lithium extraction (DLE) pilot plant in Olapacato, Salta has gone into hibernation for the time being.

As morning dawns bright and chilly at 4,100 m. above sea level, Gonzalo Argiró, the Lithium Plant Manager, and Nicolás Fiandrino, Energy Transition Technology Expert, tell Tecpetrol Hoy about the plant and its upcoming downtime.

In action.The last settings before closing down for hibernation.

"Basically, it’s now in hibernation with functions down to a minimum, until such time as we need to carry out new tests," begins Nicolás. Gonzalo provides further detail. "The plant was built to test the technology to be used in Guayatayoc, some salt flats that we are exploring in Jujuy, which will form the basis for a larger-scale industrial plant."

Tecpetrol, in collaboration with Techint, undertook the entire project from design to execution, commissioning and start-up, overcoming challenges of all kinds on the way, including mechanical, and instrumentation issues as well as control.

As it went from the drawing board to its current format, the plant benefited from multiple improvements due to trial and error, a significant learning experience for everyone involved. The results show just how significant a qualitative leap they had to take on the way to conquering previously unimagined horizons. “The initial mission of the plant was to test and derisk technology but as it grew and developed, we added the ability to make assets viable and value them: we now have the tools and technologies to be used in salt flats that no one else can produce,” enthuses Gonzalo.

The cherry on the cake was the result of the last test, which showed that the plant can function well and recover a good amount of lithium even if fed with very poor-quality brine. “We achieved a major milestone as we were able to recover the greatest amount of lithium possible from all the different brines tested. We even managed to do this from brines with a very low content, something that we’re convinced no one has come close to doing before,” says Nicolás. Gonzalo expands, looking ahead, as, "the plant’s current technology means that a large number of salt flats lying within the Lithium Triangle have the potential to become viable."

In the heights of Salta.A bird's eye view of the plant.

Made in Argentina, with pride. Most of the plant’s parts were manufactured in Argentina, with engineering carried out at Techint and other national companies. “This entire process was one of continuous improvement and a pronounced technological learning curve which enabled us to achieve a huge amount. That constant learning and deep understanding of technology is one of the most positive things we’ve gained from building this plant,” adds Nicolás.

Mission accomplished. Both executives smile in agreement as, “we believe that what we’ve achieved means that we can make all the salt flats lying in the Lithium Triangle viable, enabling us to consume water sustainably, recirculate resources and support a range of environmental aspects so we can move towards the sustainable extraction of this material. The premise of this plant was always to develop chemical technologies that would enable us to just extract lithium and then return the brines to their sources of origin. The ultimate goal was to scale this DLE technology to an industrial level, and we are now well and truly on that path."

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