Lithium Economics

Bolivia and Argentina: Natural Gas for Lithium Extraction and Processing?

Oct 10, 2011

In previous articles I have suggested that Bolivia could use its natural gas reserves for extracting and processing its lithium. This could be the basis for Bolivia’s competitiveness in this area as compared to Chile and Argentina. With the expansion of the Bolivian gas pipeline to northern Argentina, where all of its lithium brine resources are, however, chances are the fuel will benefit Argentina rather than Bolivia.

With great concern, I have learned the recent statements by president of YPFB (Bolivia’s state oil and gas company) about the possible "infeasibility" of the project to supply natural gas to Uyuni from the branch of the pipeline to the Puna - to establish a connection between northern Argentina and border town (with Bolivia) La Quiaca.


As a sign of total ignorance of the subject, he has rather proposed making a virtual pipeline aimed at carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG), along with the installation of regasification plants. What the executive has not mentioned is that LNG is usually much more expensive than natural gas. The public should know that unless a constant flow of natural gas, both in significant volumes and at reasonable cost, to Southwestern Potosi is insured, the launch of what may become the major energy center on Earth will be postponed with major economic implications for Bolivia and the world.


In previous contributions I have discussed the possibility of using Bolivia’s natural gas in integral production methods of evaporite resources based on thermal evaporation of brines in the Salar de Uyuni. Additionally, I have suggested its use not only in the processing of lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, lithium chloride, potassium chloride and boric acid, but also in electrolytic processes aimed at obtaining metallic lithium, sodium and magnesium, which would be the bridge to the real industrialization of the country’s strategic energy resources. I also mentioned that this could be the basis for Bolivia’s competitiveness in this area as compared to Chile and Argentina.

 

The lack of vision of those responsible for managing the country's destiny is such that they are only thinking about how to fulfill their commitments to Argentina and do not seem to have any concern for the consequences of a purely extractive activity for the emerging lithium industry in Bolivia.

With the expansion of the Bolivian gas pipeline to northern Argentina, the Puna – where, curiously, all of the neighboring country’s lithium brine resources are found - will be equipped with the valuable energy mineral. From that branch, it will not be difficult to extend pipelines to the various mining operations, settled in the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, with advanced plans to enter the lithium carbonate market in the next 2 to 3 years. Overall, this may help improve Argentina's competitiveness in the lithium market for lithium.

History seems to repeat itself: Bolivia’s gas will not only help obtain urea and other chemicals in Brazil, but also may be used for the processing of Argentina’s evaporite resources. In both cases, Bolivia will have shot in the foot. When will there be some strategic planning in the country?

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