Lithium Economics

What is behind Bolivia´s announcement that it will produce lithium cathodes?

Apr 08, 2012

In recent days Bolivia has announced that in 2013 it will start producing lithium cathodes. Here I attempt to reveal some intricacies of this statement.

In the first half of 2010, the lithium pilot project gave a significant amount of brine from Salar de Uyuni to South Korea for experimental work.  Between 2009 and 2010 did the same with France, China and Japan. In an interview with El Nacional of Tarija at the time, I noticed the lack of precautionary measures of national interest in such deliveries, particularly regarding possible patents that might arise from such research efforts.

In August 2010, South Koreans gave the results of their research. The press reported statements by the ambassador of that country refusing until the last minute to hand over the study, as long as there was no compensation from the government. It is also possible to find a statement by the current head of the pilot plant, arguing that "yes, we would have to pay." I remember then commenting that this was unacceptable as without the brines from the Salar de Uyuni none of this would have been possible.

The results point to four processes, that go beyond solar evaporation systems, evaporation systems as such and even beyond obtaining lithium carbonate. The researchers reported that only one such process was patented, which refers to the direct production of cathodes of lithium without having to obtain first lithium carbonate, certainly an unconventional way to produce such battery components. My fear about lack of precautions to preserve the national interest in negotiations with foreign powers around our evaporite resources was fully justified. The country had lost again.

In November 2010, during my presentation at the Expert Meeting on Lithium organized by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) held in Santiago, Chile, I commented on the four processes discovered by the South Koreans, pointing out that they could be taken as important inventions and technological innovations in the lithium industry. At that time, the current evaporite resources manager refuted this argument by noting that the South Korean research had thrown only preliminary results so far. I replied that an invention of a process that had been patented could not be considered as preliminary results. Great was the surprise of the manager when a South Korean representative then presented a video giving an account of research carried out with the brines from Salar de Uyuni.

The rest is history. After repeated announcements by the pilot plant to start soon producing potassium chloride and lithium carbonate based on a "Bolivian process" we would end up in early January 2012 witnessing a recognition  by public officials  for the first time of the limitations of solar evaporation in the process of obtaining such chemicals; in  February of this year having the same public official attend a meeting in South Korea to receive an explanation of a new process to obtain lithium carbonate featuring generation of savings in the consumption of fresh water; and a couple of days ago having Bolivia announce the signing of a new agreement with South Korea, this time to initiate a project to produce lithium cathodes.

The intricacies of the pilot project are truly worthy of a novel without a predictable end. Although many details of the latest agreement of cooperation and understanding are not yet clear, it is likely that under the new venture, the South Koreans will obtain lithium cathodes in Bolivia with the process invented and patented by them using Bolivian brines.  Why? Well, because it simply would not make sense installing a lithium cathode plant based on traditional technology knowing that Bolivia has yet to produce one ton of lithium carbonate.

Anyway, I do value the agreement with South Korea because it represents a breakthrough for the country in terms of generating more value added for our lithium. Nevertheless, the Bolivian people should know that behind this achievement, and after four years of unsuccessful attempts, is the pilot plant´s inability to produce at least some lithium of competitive quality on its own.

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