Talent crunch may spoil battery firms’ great lithium hope
In the race to satisfy world lithium appetite that’s set to double by 2025, firms have expedited talent search

In the global rush to supply the electric-car revolution, lithium hot spot Argentina is grappling with a shortage of talent.

Battery makers are depending on the South American nation’s high-altitude salt flats as a key new supply of the metal, with vast deposits and an investor-friendly government luring prospectors and developers.

Under president Mauricio Macri, Argentina has ambitions to become a lithium superpower, supplying as much as 45 per cent of the market, up from about 16 per cent now.

Projects have faced unpredictable weather and financing struggles. But perhaps the biggest barrier to development is a dearth of skilled workers.

“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, a joint venture between Lithium Americas Corp and Soc Quimica & Minera de Chile. “There’s no technical personnel” for lithium.

The shortage of local expertise can be seen as a growing pain in a new industry, and one that’s being exacerbated by competition from other sectors, like shale gas, as deregulation under Macri helps jump-start the economy.

Up until two years ago, the only company extracting lithium on a commercial scale from Argentine brine was US-based FMC Corp, which began operations in the Dead Man salt flat in 1997. Australia’s Orocobre became the country’s second producer in 2015.

The SQM-Lithium Americas venture on the Cauchari-Olaroz salt flats about 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level in Jujuy province plans to start producing lithium carbonate at an annual rate of 25,000 tonnes in 2019. Dozens of other projects are at earlier stages.

Argentina is looking to take market share from neighboring Chile where would-be producers need authorisation from the nuclear energy commission in a throwback to a 1979 decision to declare lithium “strategic.”

Extracting lithium from salty water is cheaper and easier than hard-rock mining. Producers drill for brine, and then pump the liquid through giant hoses into turquoise evaporation ponds. What’s left is processed into lithium carbonate, prices of which have tripled in the past three years.

But companies including Orocobre have found the process is trickier than they first thought. The Brisbane, Australia-based company, which operates at Cauchari-Olaroz in partnership with Toyota Tsusho Corp, has cited a lack of engineering expertise as contributing to its failure to hit a production target of more than 15,000 tonnes for the year through June. With cloudy weather also hindering evaporation and snowstorms stopping arrivals of a key imported chemical, output was about 11,900 tonnes.

“You can’t generate the know-how just like that,” said Cristian Saavedra Lopez, a Chilean who heads Orocobre’s lithium operations in Argentina. The company has been working for about two years with the National University of Jujuy to train both current employees and students who could apply for jobs at the mine, Saavedra Lopez said.

The university, with the support of Conicet, Argentina’s science and technology promotion agency, has set up a research centre for improving extraction techniques and developing high-performance rechargeable batteries made with lithium. Notably, the center hired Victoria Flexer, a prominent Argentine chemist who was tempted home after years overseas.

Argentina’s lithium industry will employ 1,538 people by 2019, up from 1,178 currently, according to mining chamber Caem.

A lithium carbonate mine with capacity of 20,000 tons a year needs an operational staff of about 200, according to Argentina’s energy and mining ministry. With 38 projects in the nation’s lithium pipeline, including Minera Exar, that could mean an arduous headhunt to ensure 7,600 jobs of varying technical levels get filled.

In the race to satisfy world lithium appetite that’s set to more than double by 2025, driven by the electric-vehicle boom, Lithium Americas expedited the talent search.

To equip its Minera Exar venture with expertise, the company brought SQM on board in March 2016, giving up a 50 per cent equity stake. The partnership also ensured a $285 million investment from China’s Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium Co and Thailand’s Bangchak Corp at a time when it’s proving tough to get financing for Argentine lithium projects.

SQM already produces lithium carbonate at a much bigger mine on the Atacama salt flat over the border in Chile. It has sent 60 seasoned engineers to Minera Exar, according to Lithium Americas. “It’s an arms race for engineers,” said John Kanellitsas, Lithium Americas’ president, comparing the talent squeeze to the shortage of specialist programmers in Silicon Valley.”