Lithium Economics

Will Bolivia Ever Become the New Saudi Arabia of Lithium in the World?

Apr 06, 2013

A new review of the facts surrounding Bolivia’s possibility of becoming the new Saudi Arabia of lithium in the World depicts a rather pessimistic short-term prospect for the country holding at least one fourth of the planet´s identified lithium resources.

In a pair of blogs published on in March and June 2009 I argued that three conditions needed to be met for Bolivia to become the “New Saudi Arabia of the World”.

First, the electric car rush should have started along with the launch of GM´s Volt. Second, Bolivia had to have begun producing lithium carbonate in a proportion appropriate to the world´s needs. Third, increases in lithium prices should not have made production of other lithium resources (e.g. spodumene) commercially viable.

As of now, the electric car rush seems to have started – albeit at a rather slow pace - following the launch of GM`s Volt together with a number of other plug-in vehicles, all of them using Li-ion batteries. Secondly, Bolivia has thus far failed to begin producing any lithium carbonate and prospects about the country becoming a lithium superpower in the world are nowadays only part of the government´s “wishful thinking”. Thirdly, lithium prices have increased somewhat in the last two years or so after the emergence of new sources of demand for lithium which, in view of the difficulties faced by Chile and Argentina to produce more lithium, has in fact contributed to converting Australia – a spodumene producer - into the world´s leading producer of lithium.

In this context, Bolivia appears to have missed for the time being a golden opportunity to become the “New Saudi Arabia” of lithium. Still, based on figures provided by Francois Risacher in 1991, mostly accepted by the United States Geological Survey since January 2010, the Salar de Uyuni remains the most important source of lithium on the planet, holding today about 25% of the world´s identified lithium resources.

The main problem Bolivia is facing right now is not funding but technology. I have written extensively on the limitations of technologies based on solar evaporation to extract lithium from the Uyuni salt fields. After almost 5 years of experimentation, the Bolivian government has come to realize that the effort and time spent do not match to the kind of results obtained.

However, this has not prevented it from inaugurating in recent months 3 pilot plants to produce lithium carbonate and potassium chloride which at the present day are not fully operational, and in a few weeks a new pilot Li-ion battery plant is to arrive in Bolivia from China although nobody knows where it will obtain the raw materials (e.g. lithium carbonate or hydroxide) from to operate. The government is working hard to try to convince public opinion in Bolivia that everything is under control and on schedule but evidence is accumulating that that is not the case.

Over this time period, Bolivia engaged in different sorts of negotiations with the firms Bollore (France), Sumitomo and Mitsubishi (Japan) and other important players such as Posco from South Korea and the Citic Guoang Group from China, all of them interested in the Bolivian lithium. However, lack of a coherent strategy prevented the government from achieving the goals it was expecting.

The government did in fact signed significant agreements with the consortium formed by Posco and Kores and the Citic Guoang Group to produce lithium cathodes in Uyuni, Potosi, and explore Salar de Coipasa, Oruro, respectively. But as of today neither of these endeavors shows any meaningful progress.

In the first case, it appears like all activities were paralyzed due to lack of understanding between partners on a crucial point: the patent discovered by Posco-Kores using intangible Bolivian brines given for free by the government for which the consortium now wants to charge a fee. In the second, there is absolute secrecy as to the reasons why evaporite resources exploration at Coipasa remains a task carried out solely by Bolivia despite the agreement signed with the Chinese.

As I mentioned above, prospects for Bolivia to take off as a lithium superpower are now distant and uncertain. Unless the country changes significantly its lithium strategy, it is highly unlikely that Bolivia will become relevant in the lithium market in the following ten years or so. Under these circumstances, the skepticism around Bolivia’s lithium is fully justified.

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