Rodrigo Dupouy
Rodrigo Dupouy

Ensorcia Group formula for innovation in lithium extraction

The lithium potential of Chile and Argentina will be crucial, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts a global shortage of the metal by 2025, while financial services company Credit Suisse forecasts that demand will triple between 2020 and 2025.

But the process of extracting the brine, and the water used in the process, has raised concerns about its environmental impact. One of the most common lithium extraction methods involves drilling into the salar crust to pump brine at an average speed of up to 1,700 l/s, which is then distributed to evaporation ponds to reach its concentration under the sun and continue the chemical extraction process. processing plant to produce lithium carbonate.

The American company Ensorcia Group (Sorcia Minerals) offers an innovative technology that uses mobile, modular installations to extract lithium and reinject brine. This minimizes water consumption and carbon footprint, and promises high efficiency.

BNamericas spoke to Ensorcia Group President for Latin America, Rodrigo Dupouy, about the solution, the Chilean and Argentine markets and more.

BNamericas: What is Ensorcia Group innovative technology for extracting lithium? 

Dupouy: Our technology enables us to extract the lithium and chlorine contained in the brine with an efficiency of over 85%, obtaining a lithium chloride solution with a concentration of 30% and 40% and with less than 10 ppm of contaminants. This enables us to transport it over long distances, 300 to 400 km, to reach a chemical plant. Thereafter, the brine returns to its original state at temperatures of 20°C to 25°C, similar to when it was extracted, and 92% of the extracted brine is re-injected. As a result, we don’t use steam tanks. 

In Chile, [local company] SQM has said that it reinjects, but it’s probably just some excess streams that are discharged back into the salar so that they fall by gravity. But then again, practically everything evaporates. In Argentina, nothing is reinjected. Nor in Bolivia. As a result, our proposal is sustainable and more efficient than current technologies. We can produce the same thing, but with a lower extraction rate. If we have an extraction rate of 100l/s, we’ll reinject 92l/s.

BNamericas:  What are the plants like?

Dupouy: They’re mobile and adaptable, and not very invasive in the field. A 20l/s plant with all its supporting materials, i.e. with LNG, electric generators, camping, truck roads, among others, requires 0.7 ha, which is quite small compared to the evaporation ponds found in the Atacama salt flats [operated by SQM and the American company Albemarle] which have an impact of 52km2. To generate what Chile currently produces, we would only need 40 hectares.

BNamericas: How many basic plants does the technology take into account?

Dupouy: Two small, mobile and modular 20 l/s plants, making installation quick and easy. It took us 10 days with 9 people to assemble one plant. The two towers can be coupled to achieve the desired flow rate and concentration. If you want to extract 40 l/s, for example, you’ll need more plants to extract it. On the other hand, if you want less, you’ll need fewer plants.

The mobility of the plants means that they can be installed on the salar, as is done in most operations, but they could also be installed 10 km from the salar, given the extraction and reinjection pipes needed to reinject into the same saline again.

Today, salt pans are protected areas, which makes intensive exploitation more difficult, not least because of the impact the ponds generate on ecosystems, flora and fauna. To avoid this, inventor John Burba discovered the solution in 1986 and between 1994 and 1998 developed the first direct lithium extraction plant using selective absorption with small-scale facilities. Finally, in 1998, the first plant was installed in the Hombre Muerto salar in Argentina, which continues to operate today, and operator Livent has achieved excellent results.

In March 2022, we completed the first plant under the name Sorcia Minerals, a subsidiary of Ensorcia Group in Louisiana, USA, and it is currently in the test phase. It’s not connected to a salt works, but it receives 70,000 l of brine to feed the plant and carry out tests.

All salines are different and require studies to know where to extract and where to reinject. Brine is generally reinjected within a 2 km radius of the extraction point. The central idea is that the brine contains the same amount as before extraction began.

BNamericas:  How many people are needed to run the plants?

Dupouy: The 20 l/s plant requires between six and eight people. It contains an automated system that allows it to be monitored on site, from Santiago or Houston.

BNamericas:  What is the business model and investment required to acquire a project in the Maricunga salar, for example, with production of 20,000 t of lithium carbonate equivalent per year?

Dupouy: We don’t sell or lease the plant, we operate it. We participate in our own projects or in joint ventures operating our plants. In the case presented, we would be talking about a cost of between $250 and $300 million a year to operate the plant in the salar, without taking into account the modular chemical plant, which depends on many factors. The cost is very low compared to the $700 million that a plant with evaporation ponds would cost, which also requires more implementation time.

BNamericas: Are you considering the possibility of using desalinated water?

Dupouy: In the 20 l/s plant, we use less than 0.2 l/s of water, which is very little and requires a tanker truck every three or four days. Desalinated water is precisely one of our business objectives, because we don’t want to use the same water as the saltworks and we want to avoid the constant in and out of trucks in the plants.

BNamericas:  What’s the status of Ensorcia Group lithium projects in Chile?

Dupouy: We have two projects in Chile, in the Maricunga salar, in the Atacama region, and in the Tara salar, in the Antofagasta region. Both are currently being explored. We hope to begin exploration soon, but without government authorization we won’t be able to mine lithium.

The problem in Chile is that lithium is considered a strategic material and can only be mined under special operating contracts, which are difficult for private companies to obtain. We’ve been talking to state agencies, the government and universities about locating our plants in Chile and starting to develop a more sustainable lithium industry over time.

BNamericas:  How is the lithium project in the Antofalla salar in Argentina going?

Dupouy: It’s going very well, but we’ve had some logistical problems, as the country doesn’t have the mining development that exists in Chile. We’re starting a drilling campaign that will cover around 3,500 m in the first phase, which we expect to complete in four to five months. The first well will soon be closed, and the results are already being analyzed to determine the quality of the salar. Based on the results, we will decide whether to implement a second phase of exploration.

BNamericas:  What do you think of Chile’s planned national lithium company and the increased role of the state in metal policy?

Dupouy: For years, we’ve wanted to reach a public-private agreement with the state, whether through [the state mining company] Enami, [the national copper company] Codelco, [the development agency] Corfo or whatever. Our only concern is that a reasonable participation be guaranteed to each player, because the costs involved with our technology are high and we need to be sure of the investments.

BNamericas:  Is the high demand for lithium forecast for the coming years realistic?

Dupouy: Demand for lithium is set to increase significantly. Today, we’re talking about a global demand of 1.2 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent [per year], but I think this figure is far from sufficient. Today, global production is around 400,000 t/year. In other words, we’re a long way from achieving our goal. Another problem is time, as the industry takes years to reach 100% of its operations. On the other hand, our technology is quick to install and implement, and enables much faster production.

BNamericas:  How long would production take using your plants?

Dupouy: In a salar like the Atacama, which contains 2,000 ppm, fewer plants would be needed to produce. But if the salar is 350 ppm, you’d need more plants and a higher extraction rate to produce a greater quantity. So it depends on the salar. But in an intermediate saline of 800 ppm, we could start producing in 24 to 36 months depending on climatic conditions.

BNamericas: In Chile, there are discussions about the mining royalty , which includes lithium tax rates and possible increases in production costs. What do you think about this?

Dupouy: It will indeed increase costs. We’re concerned about the royalty discussion because it doesn’t consider the possibility of deducting operating and start-up costs. Mining companies spend a lot of money to create resources that, if not tax-deductible, will increase production costs.

Finance Minister Mario Marcel has said he is open to discussing the royalty, so the possibility of continuing the debate is always open. We’re not against royalties, but they shouldn’t be excessive, so that we can integrate technologies and develop projects. 

BNamericas:  Will the lithium you plan to produce in Chile and Argentina add value?

Dupouy: Our objective is to produce lithium hydroxide. In the future, we could move into lithium carbonate or cathode production. Through our subsidiary Sorcia Motors of Ensorcia Group, we have just acquired the British carmaker TVR and are looking into the possibility of converting them to electric cars in Europe by 2024. We would like to set up a line in Chile to supply the local and regional market.

I’m finding it hard to open lithium battery factories in Chile, but intermediate products such as lithium cathodes or lithium hydroxide already represent major advances in terms of added value.

BNamericas: Do you plan to introduce this technology in other Latin American countries?

Dupouy: Our technology only works with brine. In Brazil and Peru, we extract it from rocks. Chile was the leading lithium producer four or five years ago. Today, we’re number two, and we’re already looking for third place, with the possibility of reaching fourth place in the next few years. That’s why it’s important to incorporate this type of technology, to regain the number one spot and take full advantage of the lithium boom.

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