Lithium Economics

Lithium in Bolivia: At Last some Sanity *

Jan 09, 2012

For the first time, Bolivian officials acknowledge the limitations of solar evaporation, enhancing the use of chemicals, and opening the possibility of using natural gas for the exploitation of lithium and other evaporite resources of the Salar de Uyuni.

According to recent statements by the national manager of the evaporite resources released by Bolivian newspaper La Razon, processing of lithium carbonate and potassium chloride will be carried out by combining "profitable" solar evaporation and chemicals.


Apparently, this procedure will be used in the short and medium term. However, "in the long run, yes, there will be gas, because you need to make other products such as magnesium" and even "to analyze other beneficial processes for lithium itself," said that authority.

I begin by noting that this is the first time that the pilot project publicly acknowledges the limitations of solar evaporation, enhancing the use of chemicals, and opening the possibility of using natural gas for the exploitation of lithium and other evaporite resources of the Salar de Uyuni.

The information provided by the head of the lithium pilot plant is also an indication that behind this apparent change of course could be Bolivia’s new possible partner announced by the government newspaper Cambio only few days ago: South Korea.  As I've argued repeatedly, this country has developed, with Bolivian brines, at least four methods of production of lithium carbonate and lithium cathode that go beyond solar evaporation and evaporation as such for the production of lithium carbonate and even beyond the production of lithium carbonate to go directly to obtain different cathodes for lithium-ion batteries.

Also, it seems that from now on "the Bolivian process", defended so vigorously by the pilot project until recently, will be nothing but an anecdote - indeed somewhat expensive for the State. In this context, all the unfounded ideas expressed by the person in charge of the lithium pilot project in relation to the alleged preliminary nature of the Korean research, almost vociferated against me at the Senior Expert Group Meeting on Sustainable Development of Lithium Resources in Latin America held in November 2010 in Chile, have also been left behind.


I too celebrate that the government has ended up agreeing with me regarding the need for natural gas at Salar de Uyuni to start a real industrial process of exploitation of evaporite resources there. However, I still don’t see a clear conviction about use of a comprehensive approach to this task. On the one hand, the manager says the project has developed processes for sodium, sulfate, magnesium, potassium, lithium and boron, among others. On the other, when referring to use of natural gas, he only speaks of magnesium, suggesting that the fossil fuel is not as necessary for the rest of evaporite resources.

The Bolivian people should know that the development project of evaporite resources on an industrial scale of the Salar de Uyuni will oly be feasible if addressed from a holistic perspective, i.e. including all minerals contained in the largest salt lake in the world, provided there is natural gas in sufficient quantities for both extraction and processing, as well as industrialization of such strategic mineral resources.

Finally, although the recent statements by the former Minister are encouraging because they show finally some sanity in the pilot project, there is concern that the large financial resources allocated in the 2012 state budget to the National Office of Evaporite Resources will not yet include any money for the construction of the natural gas pipeline to Salar de Uyuni.

 

* First published in Spanish on HidrocarburosBolivia.com on January 05, 2012 (See: http://www.hidrocarburosbolivia.com/nuestro-contenido/noticias/48674-litio-por-fin-un-poco-de-cordura.html).

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