Tres Quebradas lithium project, also known as the 3Q lithium project, is a high-quality lithium brine project being developed by Neo Lithium in the Catamarca Province of Argentina. The estimated capital expenditure for the project is $319m.

The project is estimated to produce an average of 20,000 tonnes (t) of battery-grade lithium carbonate-equivalent (LCE)  a year over its anticipated mine life of 35 years.

The mining and environmental authorities of Catamarca approved the 3Q project in October 2016, while pre-feasibility study was completed in March 2019. Feasibility study of the project is expected to be completed in the first half of 2020.

Neo Lithium is currently working on the pilot plant, which is in final stages of commissioning.

Tres Quebradas lithium project location, geology, and mineralization

Located in the south-western portion of the Catamarca Province of Argentina, the project lies approximately 25km from the border of Chile. Extending over 35,000ha, the project comprises a salar and a 160km² brine reservoir complex.

The unique high-grade lithium brine reservoir is situated in the Lithium Triangle on the Puna Plateau near the main Andean Cordillera. The Lithium Triangle is host to multiple high-altitude salt lakes and salt flats with elevated lithium concentrations.

Tres Quebradas lithium project reserves

 The proven and probable reserves of the 3Q project were estimated to be 1.3Mt of LCE grading 794mg/l lithium, as of March 2019.

 Mining at Tres Quebradas

Conventional evaporation pond operation is proposed to extract brine from the project. Brine from the evaporation ponds will be conveyed to production wells through self-priming pumps.

Major production equipment required for the project include trucks, a hydro crane, two high-density polyethylene (HDP) welders, and submersible electric pumps. The service equipment will include bulldozers, frontal loaders, and dump trucks.

Brine processing for Tres Quebradas lithium project

Standard, low-cost solar evaporation technology will be employed to produce lithium carbonate from the Tres Quebradas project.

Brine from the production wells will be pumped to the solar evaporation pre-concentration ponds. NaCl (halite) and KCl (sylvite) will be removed from the brine following an approximately 120-day retention period.

The concentrated brine will then be transferred to the calcium chloride (CaCl2) ponds and thickeners to extract majority of the calcium precipitating antarcticite.  The brine with a lithium concentration of 3.5% will be transported to the brine processing plant.

Brine processing will be conducted in four stages at two locations - Fiambalá (100km from Salar 3 Quebradas) and Recreo (465km from Fiambalá).

At the Fiambalá unit, solvent will be extracted from the brine to remove remaining boron. It will be followed by sulfatation process to remove remaining calcium by adding a saturated solution of sodium sulfate.

The brine will be mixed with mother liquor and minor soda ash at the Recreo facility to remove traces of calcium and magnesium. Soda ash and heat will be added to precipitate lithium carbonate, before proceeding to drying and packaging processes.

The sulfatation plant is expected to recover 92% of LCE, while the carbonation plant is expected to recover 85%.

Infrastructure facilities

 The lithium project can be accessed by an access road from the Ruta Nacional 60 Highway, which lies within 60km from the project.

Power supply for the 3Q project will be provided by a hybrid system comprising a photovoltaic (PV) and diesel generation system. The PV and diesel plants are expected to provide 2.6MW and 8.8MW, respectively.

Fresh water is proposed to be sourced from a shallow well located approximately 4km from the mine site.

Contractors involved

Groundwater Insight prepared the NI 43-101 technical report and the mineral resource estimate of the project. Groundwater Insight was supported by Hidroar and Martin and Miguens with the project studies.

Groundwater Insight was also engaged along with GHD Chile (GHD) to prepare a technical report summarizing the PFS. Other participants in the technical report preparation were IHLLA Research Group, Golder, and G&T Ingenieria.

GHD was responsible for the preparation of  the preliminary economic assessment (PEA) report of the Tres Quebradas lithium project.