Lithium Economics

Lithium Production in Uyuni

Dec 16, 2012

A recent announcement by the government of Bolivia that it will increase potassium chloride production capacity in the lithium pilot plant prompts some necessary comments

The following points summarize my comments about the reasons why the evaporite resources national manager (ERNM) would have recently announced an increased monthly production capacity (from 1,000 to 1,200 tons) of potassium chloride (KCl) in the lithium pilot plant in Bolivia:

1) Given the problems encountered in the production of lithium carbonate (Li2C03), the pilot project would be betting on KCl, for which it would have accumulated enough material precipitated along the nearly five years of implementation of Llipi Llipi plant. This is nothing strange and perfectly matches the position of the main driver of the plant, Guillermo Roelants, since 2009 that potassium is primary and lithium secondary. In several articles published between January and June 2010 in El Diario and La Razón I discussed this issue with the then head of marketing and finance of the pilot plant.

2) Due to the length of time since the official launch of the pilot plant, the ERNM would be looking to convince the public that the project goes "smooth sailing", showing to the effect that Bolivia has indeed managed to produce "something" (and even better if it is a bit "more" than originally planned). The idea is that once the plant begins to produce and sell "something" (namely KCl) to someone (namely Brazil, Venezuela or China) and at any price (namely a very low one), people will quickly forget what the initial goals were.

3) This is in keeping with the idea of preparing for 2014 "a gigantic industrial production of potassium and lithium, as well as factories of battery cathodes" as recently announced by the Vice President of Bolivia. It is easy to see that behind all this there would be a clear electoral effort, although it is unclear whether the Vice President will effectively be able to fulfill his desire.

4) This could open the way for the almost inadvertent arrival of the first cathode production lines directly from lithium brines of the Salar de Uyuni (with lithium carbonate as an almost residual and secondary byproduct) based on a revolutionary technology invented and patented by South Korean companies Posco and Kores. By then, everyone will have forgotten the promise that the first two phases of the so-called "lithium industrialization strategy" would result from a 100% state effort.

5) Finally, it all now indicates that between 2013 and 2014 the government of Bolivia will try by all means to prove that the country can produce lithium batteries supported by a Chinese company known more for production of materials than for the manufacturing of advanced lithium-ion batteries. 

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