Experts say that while the energy reform could soon allow the government control over the country's lithium reserves, the administration may not be able to exploit the resource for another 7 to 13 years, as it lacks the knowledge, experience and technology to do so.
Specialists have highlighted that the exploitation of lithium in Mexico would not be immediate even if the energy reform is approved: first, the government requires further studies, the acquisition of new technology and the creation of a viable extraction method to make lithium exploitation economically viable.
Armando Alatorre, President, the College of Mining Engineers, Metallurgists and Geologists of Mexico (CIMMGM), told Milenio that the government must first invest around US$100 million to explore the country's deposits, since so far only one deposit has been identified. Alatorre explained that the country's lithium exploration program may take between 5 and 10 years, while the construction of the necessary infrastructure may take another 3 years.
Currently, the Mexican Geological Survey (SGM) is carrying out an US$2.7 million lithium exploration program, which has identified eight locations where lithium deposits could be favorably developed. However, the program's budget is a far cry from what the country requires to boost the lithium industry, say experts. For instance, the Sonora Lithium Project, the most advanced lithium project in the country, foresees an investment of US$682 million in infrastructure and equipment. Alatorre said that any will have provide a similar amount, in addition to having a budget for workers, specialists, methods and laboratories, among others.
Furthermore, it has been argued that SGM's exploration program period of 8 months is too short to truly assess the potential of Mexico's lithium reserves. "Determining whether a site could become a mineral deposit could take between 10 and 15 years,” said Flor de Maria Harp, Director, SGM.
Experts have argued that Mexico's lithium deposits require a lot of technology and resources that the country does not have. In general, lithium can be found in rocks, brines, oil wells, geothermal fields, clays and oceans. However, only brines and rocks have proven to be viable for extraction methods. In Mexico, most of the lithium reserves are found in hard-to-extract clay deposits, which are very expensive and difficult to access, reported MBN.
“To extract lithium from hectorite clay, a large number of additional processing steps need to be added to the industrial procedure through which the mineral is extracted. This means more money and energy. For instance, you might obtain three grams of lithium from each kilogram of hectorite clay. Therefore, it might not be economically viable to extract many of Mexico’s lithium reserves at this time since more direct exploration and more technology might be required," Efraín Alva Niño, Director of the Extractive Industries Unit at the Ministry of Economy told MBN.
Fernando Alanis, Former President, CAMIMEX, explained that Mexico’s lithium has a concentration of only 0.001 percent per tonne. To bring this resource to a battery percentage of 30 percent would require high cost as well as plenty of energy. Despite these difficulties, SGM said it will begin work on the process to extract lithium from the clays in May, as the government's priority is to harness the resource as soon as possible.