Lithium Economics

Mining in Bolivia: New Hopes or Frustrations?

Jan 13, 2013

The recent inauguration of the lithium carbonate pilot plant in Uyuni has prompted a new critical analysis of Bolivia´s most strategic project pointing to possible meager results after almost five years of experimental work.

Speaking to Radio Fides, the Minister of Mining and Metallurgy just said that the recent opening of the Metallurgical Complex Karachipampa and the Lithium Carbonate Pilot Plant is "proof that mining in Bolivia is at its best and that contrary to the claims of 'newspaper articles and commentators' sector performance has been the best, because despite the reduction in prices of minerals we have achieved very good results."

Perhaps we should try to find out what the minister meant by saying that the sector performed well as he, apparently, is not concerned in the least for the looting to which our valuable mineral resources are subject, resulting in a negligible revenue in royalties and taxes for the region and the State, as I have argued for several years and even a prominent advocate of the government process noted a few days ago.

About Karachipampa, I should ask him if they have taken the necessary precautions to avoid environmental contamination that could cause serious health problems to the population of the city of Potosi and with respect to Uyuni my question is if he knows that the potassium chloride pilot plant (falsely opened in August 2012) and the lithium carbonate pilot plant (recently inaugurated) is the last stage of the production process of such compounds which require a prior definition of the respective operating methods utilized for brine recovery in the Salar de Uyuni.

Regarding the latter, for all the information that I have accumulated and recent claims by the evaporite resources national manager (ERNM)himself, it appears that to date there are only two possibilities: one, that such methods are not yet defined and the project will continue experimenting along who knows how much longer, misusing funds from the Central Bank, and another, that they were in fact defined and that for their characteristics will possibly imply years of brine evaporation. Both possibilities explain why the ERNM at certain point of his interview with a local newspaper claims that the lithium carbonate pilot plant:

"has an installed capacity of 40 metric tons (MT) of lithium carbonate per month, but the trial production will be lower (7 MT/month), because there are still problems with the daily supply of raw material. This is going to increase to complete the 40 MT a month in about eight months."

So for at least eight more months the pilot project will continue to use financial resources for the industrial phase of the project in the pilot phase. I wonder if the minister will realize what this means in simple and clear language and if it should be investigated and, if necessary, be liable to some sort of penalty.

ERNM´s assertions also reveal other things when, for example, in another part of the interview he complains about "the difficulty in building pools because, due to the rainy season, the salar is flooded five to seven months a year, and these infrastructures take at least four to five months to build."

Indeed, if it is as the aforementioned points, then: when do brines evaporate in the expensive already built and to be built ponds? And the answer would be seven to five months a year, so that if we add the fact that the rates of evaporation in Uyuni are about half of Atacama, we end up with roughly more than two years required for the precipitation of different salts referred to in the process "discovered" by technicians of the potassium and lithium project in the Salar de Uyuni.

This explains why the pilot project manager says that the plant will produce at the beginning only 5,000 MT/year of lithium carbonate to achieve between 2016 and 2020 (?) 30,000 MT/year, set as the ultimate goal of the so-called evaporite resources industrialization strategy. What is not mentioned by either the manager or the minister is that by then the global demand for lithium, according to the most conservative estimates, will exceed 300,000 MT/year, leaving Bolivia with an irrelevant portion (10%) of the most strategic market in the coming years.

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