Lithium Economics

Doubts surround Bolivia lithium development

Feb 18, 2011

A recent report published by Industrial Minerals on Bolivia lithium development including some of my views on a crucial issue for the future of my country.

 16 February, 2011

by  Mark Watts

 Industrial Minerals, London, UK

Doubts continue to surround Bolivia´s potential to become a major lithium carbonate producer as the South American country announced plans to start the construction of an industrial-scale plant in 2011.

Deputy minister of productive development, Héctor Córdova, claimed state-owned mining company Corporación Minera de Bolivia (Comibol) will construct a lithium carbonate and potash plant at the Salar de Uyuni in Potosi, southern Bolivia.

Explaining Bolivia´s plans in an interview with BNAmericas, Córdova added that Comibol had started up a lithium carbonate pilot plant at the site, which has planned nameplate capacity of 500 tpa.

The pilot plant start up has been delayed by over a year, with Comibol previously targeting December 2009 to start producing sample-sized volumes of lithium carbonate material for testing.

Many commentators are sceptical about Bolivia´s ability to develop lithium carbonate operations to compete with established producers in Chile and Argentina – the other two corners of the so-called ´lithium triangle´.

Technology doubts

Juan Carlos Zuleta, a Bolivia-based economist and lithium expert, told IM:  “Unfortunately, I believe Bolivia still has a long way to go to develop adequate technology to produce lithium carbonate.”

“The government has been trying to convince everyone in Bolivia that it is indeed on track to produce and commercialise lithium carbonate and potassium chloride industrially," said Zuleta.

“However, the truth of the matter is that it has not yet been able to produce one single metric tonne of lithium carbonate or potassium chloride in its pilot plant after almost three years,” he added.

Bolivia´s Salar de Uyuni hosts the world´s largest lithium reserves, containing a widely reported 5.5m tonnes, which could be as high as 8.9m tonnes.

The Bolivian government has previously announced plans to build a 30,000 tpa lithium carbonate plant at Uyuni for an investment of aboutn $300m.

The commercial-scale project would be a relatively large operation, representing about a sixth of 2011 global lithium capacity, which is about 180,000 tpa measured in lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE).

Chile-based analyst Daniela Desormeaux explained some of the challenges to IM:  “I think that Uyuni has the potential to become part of the lithium supply, but not in the short term.”

The brine chemistry is complex and very different from Chile´s  Salar de Atacama, the region´s main source of lithium, said Desormeaux of consultancy SignumBOX.

She added: “During the rainy season in summer time [between January and March], the salar is inundated and transformed into a large lake, so operating the salar with these conditions is very complex and dangerous.”

Asian partners?

Córdova said in the BNAmericas interview:  ”The government set a policy … which states that mining evaporite resources to obtain lithium carbonate and potassium chloride will be undertaken exclusively by the state.”

“The development of carbonate to obtain lithium and its derivatives, such as for batteries, will occur in partnerships with countries and interested private companies,” he added.

While these statements appear contradictory, Bolivia has made early-stage agreements with South Korea and Japan over possible cooperation on lithium extraction and technology.

Zuleta told IM: “My understanding is that Bolivia’s relation to foreign companies to acquire equipment/technology for the pilot plant has thus far been reduced to geomembranes for the brine ponds being built in Salar de Uyuni.”

“Nevertheless, there is some cooperation going on particulary between Bolivia and South Korea through short/time trips of groups of Bolivian professionals to South Korea to become familiar with Korean technology in different aspects of the lithium value chain,”he added.

During a meeting in Tokyo in December 2010, Bolivia also agreed to cooperate with Japan in developing its resource potential.

Desormeaux added: “The government has put a lot of effort on research and they have also built a pilot plant, but probably the government will not be able to develop the entire project by itself.”

“If the issues [of brine chemistry, weather and strategic partnership] are solved in one or two years, I would say that theywould be able to start producing at a commercial scale after 2015,”she said.

The fertiliser mineral potash is expected to be Comibol’s primary product at Uyuni in the nearer future, with a 12,000 tpa capacity expected  to be established by the end of this year. 

The world´s largest lithium supplier,Chile-based SQM, produces lithium carbonate as a by-product of potash at its brine operation at the Salar de Atacama. Comibol will be looking to imitate the success of its counterpart over the border over the coming years.

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