Lithium Economics

Bolivian lithium production moves forward on South Korea jv

Sep 08, 2012

A recent report on Bolivian lithium by Jonathan Dyson, published by Industrial Minerals, based on interviews to the manager of the division that deals with lithium extraction at Comibol, the head of economy and commerce at the South Korean embassy in Bolivia, and Juan Carlos Zuleta, lithium economics analyst.

Industrial Minerals, UK

Printed Edition: September, 2012

Published online 26 July 2012

Development of new specialised process; project forging on despite weather problems

By Jonathan Dyson, in Bolivia

Bolivian lithium production has, for a long time, been the stuff of pipe dreams. Despite being home to the largest lithium reserve in the world, Bolivia has dragged its feet when it comes to extracting the mineral. Now, industrial production of lithium carbonate and lithium-ion batteries in Bolivia have moved a step closer, following the formation of a joint venture between Bolivia's state-owned mining corporation Comibol and a South Korea consortium led by the country's state-run mineral development corporation Korea Resources Corp. (Kores).

This joint-venture contract, signed earlier this month, has been set up to produce lithium cathodes, a key component of li-ion batteries, at a new pilot plant in Bolivia, using lithium carbonate produced at Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat in the south of Bolivia home to the country's extensive lithium reserves.

Comibol will own a 50% stake in the joint venture while the South Korean consortium will own the other half, with South Korea's largest steelmaker, Posco, taking 26%, and Kores, along with a number of other South Korean companies, taking 24%.

The signing of the contract marks the culmination of three years of complex negotiations between the Bolivian and South Korean governments. During that time, Bolivia had also considered bids for cooperation from the US, China, Finland, and Switzerland. South Korea is the world's largest manufacturer of lithium rechargeable batteries and imports 12,000 tpa lithium from countries including Chile and Argentina. With demand increasing for electric cars, and strong growth in the production of electronic products such as iPhones and laptops that use lithium batteries, the pressure has been increasing on Bolivia to begin extracting its lithium reserves. Salar de Uyuni hosts the world’s largest lithium reserves, with between 25% and 50% of the world's total. Independent estimates of Bolivia's reserves range from 5.5-10.2m tonnes. At Comibol, there is also an added bonus of extensive potash reserves.

Development of reserves

Luis Alberto Echazú, manager of the division that deals with lithium extraction at Comibol, told IM that the industrialisation of the evaporate resources at Salar de Uyuni has been mapped out in three phases:

Phase 1 Pilot production of lithium carbonate and potassium chloride, starting towards the end of 2012.

Phase 2 industrial production of lithium carbonate and potassium chloride, starting in 2015

Phase 3 production of cathodes, electrolytes and lithium-ion batteries, starting in 2014

Echazú said that at the phase one pilot plant, the objective is to produce 40 tpm lithium carbonate, and 1,000 tpm potash; and that for phase two, Bolivia plans to build a plant capable of producing 30,000 tpa lithium carbonate, and 700,000 tpa potash. He added that industrial production is planned to reach the full capacity level of the plant from 2015.

Echazú stressed that Phases one and two are owned and run entirely by Comibol, and that Bolivia will not accept partners for these phases. The JV with South Korea is only for Phase three.

Significantly, following the formation of the venture, the Korean consortium has expressed confidence in Bolivia's ability to produce high-quality lithium carbonate – there have been widespread doubts about whether the country could actually deliver.

Youn Koan Kim, head of economy and commerce at the South Korean embassy in Bolivia, who has worked closely with Kores and Bolivia on the formation of the new JV, told IM: "Comibol have got good results in the lab using the brine from Salar de Uyuni, and have shown they can produce lithium carbonate. Korea trusts Bolivia to produce the required quality of lithium carbonate."

Juan Carlos Zuleta, a Bolivia-based economist and lithium expert, has pointed to Bolivia's lack of experience in the exploration, extraction, and processing of such minerals, as well as the particular characteristics of the Salar de Uyuni brine. The Salar de Uyuni brine has lithium concentrations that are one-sixth of those in Chile's Atacama Desert, for example, and there are also climatic difficulties – with seasonal rains at Salar de Uyuni occurring for three months from January to March each year. Low water supplies are also a problem, he outlined. Delays in the project have intensified the concerns. The phase one plant being built this year was originally due to be built in 2009.

New Bolivian process for lithium

However, Echazú said that the research undertaken by Bolivia's National Bureau of Evaporative Resources (GNRE) – which was established to develop technology to obtain higher value-added

elements from the Uyuni salt flat – "has successfully developed a proprietary technology for the production of both lithium carbonate and potassium chloride [potash]".

According to Echazú, the process developed by GNRE for the production of lithium carbonate involves a fractional evaporation process using the virgin brine, followed by a chemical process, a further evaporation, and finally a new chemical procedure.

"This whole process allows for the gradual removal of sulfate ions, boron, sodium, potassium and magnesium, with some amounts of magnesium and boron remaining for the completion and production of lithium carbonate," said Echazú. He added that potash has also been obtained using an innovative process applied specifically to the characteristics of the Salar de Uyuni. Echazú said that the project has dealt with each of the challenges posed by the complex chemistry involved. "All obstacles have been overcome," he said. "GNRE professionals have managed to satisfactorily establish a technological process, which has been patented on behalf of Comibol."

The Bolivian company said that the climatic challenges posed by Salar de Uyuni are also being tackled. Commenting on the low supply of water in Salar de Uyuni, a spokesman said that the project has "enough water resources for our requirements. We have a system underneath the plant providing water. We are using the salty water for processing, and there is a lot of it due to the three-month rainy season. We are also using the commonwater from the area, which the communities surrounding Salar de Uyuni have authorised us to use. In addition, by re-using this water, it gets richer during the processing."

Comibol admitted that the impact of the rainy season causes separate challenges for lithium carbonate production, as it turns the Salar de Uyuni salt flats into a gigantic lake. "The rains in January 2011 were particularly difficult, as it was the most rain Bolivia has had for many years," the spokesman said. However, he said that despite the impact of the rains last year, the evaporative ponds were still built. The major problem was the flooding of the road providing access from outside Salar de Uyuni to the ponds, and that this year Comibol has built an improved, more compact road that can provide access during the rainy season. The spokesman added that rain does have advantages, and not just regarding the water supply. "It means less contamination, more humidity, and more enrichment of reserves," he said. "Also, eventually when it rains, the brine gets concentrated and can be used as a raw mineral."

Korea hopeful

Kim said that South Korea hopes the signing of the JV with Bolivia will lead to a long-term partnership. "This first stage is an experimental stage, but we want this to lead to the industrialisation of lithium cathodes using Bolivia's lithium," he said. "For Korea, it is very important that we have more lithium cathodes. We believe demand will grow for electric cars, and other electric products using lithium batteries. In addition, more and more companies are interested in big lithium batteries for grid-scale storage, so that electricity is available for high-use periods. Producing lithium cathodes using Bolivia's lithium will help us meet this demand."

While emphasising that the contract signed with Comibol by the Korean consortium is only for the pilot production of lithium cathodes, Kim said: "Common sense suggests that Bolivian and Korean technicians will discuss the production of lithium carbonate, as to produce high-quality cathodes we will need high-quality lithium carbonate. Korea has experience in producing lithium carbonate, and we have had the opportunity to research the production of lithium carbonate using brine from Salar de Uyuni given to us by Comibol, and we got good results from that."

However, despite the formation of the JV, doubts still exist about the recently announced plans, particularly within the scientific community. Juan Carlos Zuleta told IM: "My perception is that Bolivia will be able to produce potash, but it is still unclear whether Bolivia can produce the lithium carbonate effectively. Producing lithium carbonate from brines is a very difficult task." Korea has already managed to produce lithium cathodes from Bolivian brines directly without having to obtain first lithium carbonate, he added, following a recovery process discovered by them in 2010. Zuleta added that what he described as the "so-called Bolivian process" for phases 1 and 2 has in fact been adapted from South Korean research. "Bolivia still hasn't been able to produce anything original," he said. "There has been no scientific paper from Bolivia on the process for phases 1 and 2."

Both the South Korean consortium and Comibol denied that Bolivia's process had been adapted from Korea. Kim said there is "no evidence for this suggestion," while Echazú said: "What is happening in Bolivia is an unprecedented project, which began with the research itself that it is novel and appropriate to the Salar de Uyuni." However, Kim said that Posco is developing technology for obtaining lithium carbonate, and that "if it achieves good results, we will share this with other countries."

As evidence for his contention, Zuleta points to an article from leading scientific journal Hydrometallurgy on the Korean process called "Recovery of lithium from Uyuni salar brine," that was written by six Korean scientists, and the remarkable similarities it bears to Comibol’s outline of the Bolivian process that it sent to the Senate of Bolivia in April 2012.

Zuleta also said that if there are any further delays in the project, "this will put enormous pressure on the price of lithium. Several major car makers have already made major decisions and investments about the production of electric cars." Zuleta pointed to the example of GM's Chevrolet Volt, in which it has invested more than $1bn. "The use of electric cars will become normal around 10-20 years from now," he said. "If Bolivia doesn't meet its 2015 deadline for industrial production of lithium carbonate, this will be very bad for the lithium industry and market, and will make many key players in the market such as the big car makers and Apple very nervous."

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