The company Alcalis de la Patagonia (Alpat), the only producer of sodium carbonate in South America, has launched an investment plan of US$250 million. Located in Río Negro, the company has begun to expand production in order to export to five countries in the region. In addition, demand for this strategic input, which is used in different industrial areas, is seeing exponential growth because it is required in the lithium production chain.
Since its launch in 2005, Alpat has been the only sodium carbonate producer in South America. This raw material is used in the glass industry, which requires dense sodium carbonate, while the chemical industry requires its light version for the production of soaps and detergents. It is also in demand for the paper, oil and gas, metals, and chemical industries, and currently there is a special interest in the lithium market.
For this reason, the Argentine company, which is owned by Grupo Indalo, has already begun to implement a strategic investment plan in the face of an expanding market. The plant, located in the Río Negro town of San Antonio Oeste, population 48,000, currently produces some 170,000 tons per year of sodium carbonate –also known soda ash or soda solvay. It aims to reach 210,000 tons per year in the short term. However, 350,000 tons are consumed per year in Argentina alone, so the remainder is imported from China and the United States.
This without considering the lithium industry, where sodium carbonate is a necessary input, as it is required for the early stages of production. In northern Argentina, in the “lithium triangle”, Alpat is already registering increasing levels of demand. Today, 67,580 tons of sodium carbonate are consumed for production of this so-called “white gold”, but that number is expected to double in the next three years. This is because, while there are currently two lithium exporting companies in Argentina, the Secretariat of Mining’s 2030 projections indicate that there will be eight operational projects.
With this scenario, the company launched a strategic investment plan of US$250 million. The first stage will boost production from 170,000 tons per year at present to 210,000 tons. In a second stage, the plant will be expanded to take annual production up to 330,000 tons. Finally, in the third stage, the company aspires to a second expansion of the plant to bring its annual production to 550,000 tons.
Emilio Castillo, general manager of Alpat, explained the company’s plans: “Our main clients are companies in the glass sector, a huge market in Argentina. But lithium has begun to give us the possibility of expanding in order to join the enormous chain that is going to boost the national production matrix,” he explained.
Lithium carbonate is the most demanded compound in the lithium market. During its conventional production process from brine, sodium carbonate is the input used to precipitate lithium from the brine, a process that takes place at high temperatures, to finally wash the resulting solution.
Until recently, the company has sold all its production on the domestic market. But thanks to the expansion of its installed capacity, the company has now begun to export. “Demand comes from Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, so we project increasing levels of sales abroad, which is a unique opportunity to create greater development in one of the sectors where Argentina already shines globally,” Castillo added.
According to specialists, sodium carbonate represents a market of US$11 billion globally, and is estimated to grow by around 3% in the coming years, driven mainly by the glass industry and the automotive sector.
Alpat has 400 employees in its four operating centers: SAO production plant, Quarry and Crushing Plant (in Aguada Cecilio, Río Negro), Salt Marsh (El Gualicho) and its Buenos Aires offices. Production is carried out with a synthetic form, through a Solvay ammonia process.