The Puna has become synonymous with lithium and this mineral unites, at least in Argentina, a vast territory that goes from Jujuy to Catamarca. The mineral is extracted in other parts of the world from a rock called a skimmer, but in the Puna it emerges from a lagoon and the distance between the two sources is measured in dollars. The one in our region is much cheaper and that’s what explains what was called the lithium fever which is also found in neighboring Chile and Bolivia.
Ours are lakes with a higher concentration of lithium and potassium and with a low amount of impurities. This is caused by the ingress of hydrothermal vents which add lithium to the salt pan and brine tank.
This mineral is not only used for cell phone batteries and electric cars. They have just discovered a new use and it is that of giant batteries that act as backups so that cities like Santiago de Chile run out of electricity in times of drought or skyrocketing oil prices.
The truth is that with the commitments against climate change there is no lithium in the world for batteries and their price reflects this: about $70,000 a ton now with estimates putting it up to $125,000 in no time. In parallel, other technologies are being developed to replace it. Your moment is now.
But just like Vaca Muerta depends on oil or gas pipelines to extract its produce, lithium depends on having trails in good condition, trucks with certain specificities and drivers who know how to drive at heights of over 4,000 metres. This is the bottleneck.
Fernando Cedres, son of a truck driver, who has dedicated his life to the transportation system, created Hubbing, a logistics platform that manages these complex operations with control towers. Therefore, he warns of difficulties simultaneously with the start of 12 lithium projects at the same time in an activity like mining with strict transportation safety protocols.
From Hubbing, for example, they ship 60 trucks a month carrying the geomembrane produced by Ipesa, which are a bit like the swimming pools used for the exploitation of lithium. In Salta, about 1,300 kilometers from Buenos Aires, the first part of the journey is made and from there it goes to the mines for a round trip of 500-600 kilometers. If the trucks go to Salta at 50 or 60 kilometers per hour, then they go down at 20 kilometers per hour.
“There is a lack of professional drivers, you need to know how to drive at altitude, as well as being physically fit. Trucks have technical specifics and are not plentiful. They are escorted by community vans. Added to this is bad weather with routes closed due to river flooding ”, he says, describing a traffic that is intensifying between suppliers arriving at the mines and lithium going to the ports.
Cedres, who has worked at the Tabacal sugar mill and at the DHL German post office, assures that intelligent flow management is needed.
“For every truck that goes down with the finished product, two go up with the entrances and the problem of the empty load arises with what it entails in terms of costs”, he assures.
In turn, the the tour must be planned because the lithium charge, which is packaged, is very sensitive and can attract impurities from other productions.
Consulted in the producing provinces, they summarized: “They are the challenges posed by growth and we welcome them”.