Lithium Economics

Will Bolivia use its natural gas to extract lithium?

Jun 06, 2011

A report just published by Metal-Pages on Juan Carlos Zuleta´s recent presentation at the Metals for Energy and the Environment conference held in Las Vegas in June 1-3.

 LAS VEGAS (Metal-Pages) 03-Jun-11. Doubts continue to hang over the viability of Bolivia’s lithium pilot plant in Salar de Uyuni being advanced by the State-owned Mining Corporation of Bolivia (Comibol), according to Juan Carlos Zuleta, an analyst at Lithium Economics Analyses in Bolivia. 

Speaking at the Metal-Pages Metals for Energy and the Environment conference in Las Vegas, Zuleta said the solid development of the infrastructure at the project was “irrelevant” if traditional solar evaporation extraction processes are used.

“I have observed Bolivia emulating the same processes applied by Chile. 

Technological emulation may not work in Bolivia. Low evaporation rates conspire against a more agile production of lithium carbonate,” he said.

The extraction of lithium carbonate using traditional techniques usually takes about 14 to 18 months, according to Zuleta. 

“If the electric vehicle rush takes off then the chances are we will need different kinds of extraction processes,” he said. 

“But unlike Chile and Argentina, Bolivia does have considerable natural gas resources that could be shifted towards this application.” 

Asked if Bolivia would consider using natural gas to extract lithium, Zuleta said that the country was already selling its natural gas resources to Brazil and Argentina, who are looking at ways to industrialise it. 

“We’ve tried industrialising natural gas and it’s a major challenge. But if Bolivia is to become the new energy centre of the world then maybe it’s worthwhile using natural gas to produce lithium. Time will tell,” he said. 

Zuleta noted that he was now more positive on the Salar de Uyuni deposit as it also contains high levels of magnesium and sodium. 

Last August, Comibol evaporite resources director Luis Alberto Echazú said the pilot plant being constructed in the Rio Grande region was about 80% complete. 

There are plans to build an industrial plant for lithium carbonate and potassium chloride in Uyuni, as well as a second plant at Coipasa as well as plants to produce chlorine soda, refined sulphur and sulphuric acid. 

The Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat in Bolivia. 

Bolivia and South Korea signed a co-operation agreement last August to develop Salar de Uyuni.

While South Korean companies want the soft, silver-white metal to manufacture new types of batteries, Bolivia is believed to be sitting on half the world’s reserves of lithium, which is essential to the electronics industry in South Korea, home to multinational companies such as Samsung and LG.

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