On the 191st anniversary of the
foundation of the state, Bolivia’s vice president,
Álvaro García Linera recently spoke of the
country’s lithium resources becoming "the fuel
that will feed the world" and said that this would drive
Bolivia to become a continental powerhouse by 2025.
His comments came in the wake of an
announcement earlier this month by the Gerencia Nacional de
Recursos Evaporíticos (GNRE) – the wing of
national mining body Comibol that deals with salars –
that the country had sold 9.3 tonnes lithium carbonate to China
Machinery Engineering Corp., the first material to be put on
the market in the country’s history.
Although a technical grade of material, at
98% Li2CO3 selling at $7,000/tonne, and
consisting only of material produced by a pilot plant, the sale
was significant in that it marks the entry into the lithium
game of the largest salar and the largest national lithium
resource in the world.
|Bolivia has announced the sale
of 9.3 tonnes of lithium carbonate to China. The material
was shipped last week. (Source: GNRE)
The sale of the material, officially shipped last week,
demonstrates that Bolivia "has overcome that stigma that the
exploitation of lithium was reserved for developed countries,"
the GNRE said in a statement.
The country now hopes to bring online the first of two
15,000 tpa lithium carbonate production lines in Q3 2018,
ramping up to a 30,000 tpa project on the Uyuni.
But many have dismissed the plans as hype,
citing geology, weather and political factors as reasons that
Bolivia’s vision of itself as the lithium leader
of tomorrow is little more than a pipe dream.
The 9.3 tonnes lithium carbonate produced
came from the Llipi pilot plant in the south-eastern part of
the Salar de Uyuni which, at 10,600km2, is roughly
the size of Jamaica.
This initial material is set to be
followed by another pilot volume of 16 tonnes by the end of
2016 and work is underway to construct a full scale 30,000 tpa
industrial plant, with German engineering firm K-UTEC AG
currently laying the groundwork.
Heiner Marx, CEO of K-UTEC, told
IM that project design will be finished by
September, with basic engineering works completed by March.
GNRE will then put the installation, assembly and commissioning
of the facility out to tender (though the state will keep full
control of the product).
But the project has already been
After six years of pilot work, "they
realised they were late" to the booming lithium market, Juan
Carlos Zuleta, a La Paz-based lithium economics analyst told
IM, arguing the country was pushing ahead to
industrial plant stage in spite of pilot test results rather
than because of them.
Oscar Ballivian, a Bolivian geologist who
has spent a large part of his life working on the Uyuni, told
IM that the GNRE had indicated a number of
times it had all the requisite evidence from the pilot plant to
move on to the next stage, but that this was never verified by
an external audit, leaving doubts in public opinion.
Without having clear feasibility studies,
"it is difficult to attest to all the state enterprise
indicates", he said.
Various process-related delays have
ensued, with K-UTEC’s completion date pushed to Q1
2017 as a result of a need to modify the brine extraction
process, according to Zuleta.
"By March I started to hear that the
Germans were not very happy with Comibol’s
process. They were going to try to do something else and that
would take time," he said.
Marx, though, said the delay was just a
case of needing "a little bit more time to develop a
highly-efficient and sustainable process".
"Within the process we intend to use all
valuable components dissolved in the brine and not only to use
one," Marx added.
Explaining the process to
IM, a GNRE spokesperson noted that initially
lime was used to separate out magnesium. But with large volumes
of this element present, production costs soared.
"Therefore [K-UTEC] has chosen the path of
sulphates, with optimal results in the recovery of lithium,"
the spokesperson said, adding that "the investigation of
alternative methods and of optimisation is permanent".
As it moves towards large-scale lithium
production, Uyuni faces a number of challenges, geological and
meteorological, which impede it despite its great size. For
comparison, when set against the lithium producing salars in
the other two countries of Latin America’s
so-called "Lithium Triangle", it is over three times the size
of the Salar de Atacama in Chile and almost 20 times the size
of Argentina’ Salar del Hombre Muerto.
According to the US Geological Survey
(USGS) Bolivia boasts the world’s largest
identified national lithium resource, at 9m tonnes or 22% of
the world’s total. This is significantly more than
the second- and third-placed Chile and Argentina, which hold
18% and 16% of the global total resource respectively.
But there are other factors beyond
resource size that play a role.
"Lithium production is not just a matter
of having a resource (…) It’s a mining
thing. You need to know how to produce," said Zuleta.
Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Atacama
Salar de Hombre Muerto
SQM SA, Albemarle Corp.
Concentration (ppm Li)**
Concentration Range (ppm Li)***
Rate (mm/year) ****
Rate (mm/year) ****
*Brian Jaskula, USGS; **Peter
Ehren "From Resource to Product", IM 6th Lithium Supply &
Markets, via Brian Jaskula; ***Ihor Kunasz, via Brian Jaskula;
****Francois Risacher, "Economic Study of the Uyuni Salar", via
Uyuni’s lithium concentration
generally is significantly weaker than those of Atacama and
Hombre Muerto. But more importantly, its magnesium to lithium
ratio is higher, at 19 compared to six and one.
"It will be expensive to remove the
magnesium," noted Brian Jaksula, lithium specialist at the
On top of this, "altitude, precipitation
rate, and evaporation rate are not in Bolivia's favour if the
country adopts Chile's sun-based evaporation pond route,"
Jaksula told IM.
Uyuni’s high altitude
– one-and-a-half times that of the Atacama and almost
three times that of Hombre Muerto – makes it much
cooler than its neighbours.
Bolivia has a rainy season that lasts from
December to March, with a rainfall of around 168mm/year
essentially converting the salar into a lake for parts of the
year. Again this puts it at a disadvantage compared to the
Atacama, based in the driest non-polar desert in the world and
with a precipitation rate of 15mm/year.
As a result, the Uyuni’s
evaporation rate is well below both Atacama and Hombre
Zuleta believes it is necessary to look
beyond traditional evaporation technology to counter these
issues but the GNRE said it has the matter in hand.
Acknowledging the challenges, its
spokesperson told IM it would address each of
To deal with the rainfall it has designed
platforms in the salar’s operational areas which
will allow for the development of a continuous workflow, they
said, but did not go into further detail.
On the evaporation issue, the GNRE
spokesperson again conceded it was a difficulty, with
conditions extending the evaporation process to eight-to-ten
months, but said the issue could be overcome via the
construction of a circuit of evaporation ponds, which would
allow Uyuni to stock up on raw material for nine months in
volumes permitting it to store enough lithium concentrates to
feed the carbonate plant during the months of flooding.
Many have suggested that the
country’s reluctance to involve foreign investment
in the process has left Bolivia behind the competition.
A number of companies have tried to gain
access, but have all failed at one stage or another. American
chemicals producer FMC Corp., which now produces in
Argentina’s Hombre Muerto, progressed its
proposals to exploit 9% of the Uyuni’s lithium
resources as far as the Bolivian congress in the 1990s before
various amendments made the deal untenable.
More recently, both South
Korea’s Posco and France’s Eramet
have tried to strike deals but neither succeeded. Both now have
pre-production stage projects in Argentina.
The Korean ambassador to Bolivia recently suggested the country
was missing an opportunity in lithium, prompting a strong
rebuke from Comibol.
government is adamant the country will exploit its own
sizeable lithium resource at the Salar de Uyuni (Source:
For Bolivia, it has become a question of national pride to
exploit its vast lithium resource itself, something the current
government under president Evo Morales is keen on doing.
But this attitude seems to have left it
behind in the game.
"I am really worried we are going to miss
this huge opportunity to become a lithium power in the world,"
The GNRE remains unfazed and even has
plans to extend the country’s downstream offering
along the battery value chain and to install a pilot cathode
plant in conjunction with France’s Green Tech.
"Without a doubt these are the first steps
in this industry, but what is significant is the development of
the knowledge and technology that we are achieving towards
obtaining battery grade lithium carbonate," the spokesperson
for the mining body said.
Already, they added, reiterating the
body’s earlier comments, this is "an effort that
has overcome that stigma that the lithium industry was only
reserved for industrialised countries".