There is a shortage off talent in the Argentinian lithium mining industry even as there is a mad rush globally for the metal to cater to the electric-car revolution.
Argentina is drawing prospectors and developers with its investor-friendly government and the vast deposits of high-altitude salt flats and the global battery makers are looking forward to those supplies. Currently the country accounts for 16 percent of the global supply of lithium and it wants to have as much as a 45 percent market share globally as the country attempts to become a lithium superpower under President Mauricio Macri.
There have been financing struggles and weather problems for the projects. But a dearth of skilled workers is perhaps the biggest challenge to developing the industry.
“In Argentina, everyone wants to be a lawyer or a doctor,” said Miguel Angel Persoglia, who has worked on copper and silver projects and now heads the pilot operations at Minera Exar SA. “There’s no technical personnel” for lithium.
This shortage has been compounded by other sectors like shale gas and is being viewed as a source of growing pain for the industry.
U.S.-based FMC Corp. had bene the sole company that was engaged in the business of extracting of lithium on a commercial scale from Argentine brine as early as just two years ago. It was in 1997 at the Dead Man salt flat that the company had first began operations. In 2015, the second company to enter the fray was Australia’s Orocobre td.
Chile is the immediate competitor for Argentina and the later seeks to take market share from the former. In Chile, there is need for future producers to obtain an authorization from the nuclear energy commission which retracts from a 1979 decision of the government to declare lithium “strategic.”
Compared to hard rock mining, it is cheaper to extract lithium from salty water. The brine is drilled by producers and then pumped through giant hoses into evaporation ponds. Lithium is let after evaporation.
The price of lithium has tripped in the last three years alone.
However, producing lithium in this manner turned out to be more of a challenge than earlier thought by companies like Orocobre. Lack of engineering expertise as been cited as the main reason behind the company not being able to achieve its target of more than 15,000 tons for the year through June, said the Brisbane, Australia-based company.
“You can’t generate the know-how just like that,” said Cristian Saavedra Lopez, a Chilean who heads Orocobre’s lithium operations in Argentina. Saavedra Lopez said that it has been two years that the company has been engaged in coordinating with the National University of Jujuy for imparting training to present employees as well as students who could potentially apply for jobs.
According to mining chamber Caem, the current number of employees in Argentina’s lithium industry is 1,178 and it is anticipated that the number would rise to 1,538 by 2019.
(Adapted from Bloomberg.com)