Delivering the Rincon lithium project

:: Wednesday, November 2, 2022

At approximately 3,600 metres above sea level on a remote “salar” (salt flat) in the Andes mountains, early work has commenced at the Rincon project. Located in Argentina’s Salta province, within the “lithium triangle” that covers some of the world’s prime resources, Rincon will become Rio Tinto’s first lithium operation.

Acquired by Rio Tinto earlier this year and part of our Battery Materials portfolio, Rincon will play an important role in Rio Tinto’s strategy to put the transition to net zero at the heart of its business.

“Rincon is a long-life, scalable resource capable of producing battery-grade lithium carbonate, a critical ingredient for decarbonisation. While lithium has many uses, we’re particularly excited about its application in clean technologies for the electrification of transport, like electric cars and trucks, as well as energy storage,” said Marnie Finlayson, managing director of battery materials.

A different kind of orebody

Extracting the valuable lithium-carbonate at Rincon is quite different—no excavators, drill and blast crews, or haul roads.

"The lithium at Rincon exists within a vast underground brine 'lake,' or salt basin. We are still progressing studies to fully understand its exact depth and scale, but it could be as deep as a couple of hundred metres, and more than 15 square kilometres in surface area," Brendan Foster, senior manager technical processing, explains.

"The extraction method is also vastly different to our typical mining methods. At Rincon, we will essentially pump the lithium-rich brine solution out of the salt basin before it is processed on-site. The resulting high-grade lithium carbonate is very different to the liquid we start with—it is a colourless crystal, or white, powder-like substance."

Milestone achieved

The Rio Tinto Board recently approved funding of $190M to develop a 3ktpa small starter battery-grade lithium carbonate plant on site at Rincon. The funding also includes early works to support a full-scale operation, including power line and associated substations, a 500-person construction camp, and an airstrip.

Mark Davies, Chief Technical Officer for D&T visited Rincon earlier this year and acknowledged the strong technical capability of the teams working on the project.

"We have a wonderful opportunity ahead of us, said Mark Davies, chief technical officer for Development and Technology (D&T). “And, there is a lot of energy in the team to deliver quickly and differently.”

Guillermo Calo, managing director at Rincon, says, “The 3ktpa plant is the critical next step in Rincon's development pathway. We have a passionate and incredibly talented team involved in Rincon—from our Salta and site teams to our colleagues in Projects—and we know Rincon's expansion has to happen in a responsible and risk-based way. By starting small and increasing incrementally, we'll be able to apply the knowledge and information we gain from the starter plant to scale up for the future and optimise our recovery rates.”

There is already strong interest from our customers, including from Ford Motor Company who has signed a Memorandum of Understanding for lithium from Rincon to support electric vehicle production.

“We are excited to work with our customers to help progress their transition to net zero,” said Paramita Das, global head of marketing, development and ESG for Metals and Minerals at Rio Tinto. “We are investing to grow materials such as lithium that are needed for the energy transition. As we look to the future, technology and partnerships that help decarbonise business and value chains is of primary importance.”