| YLB operations
in Llipillipi at the Salar de Uyuni (Source:
The 200% rise in lithium prices over the past two years has
prompted Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) to accelerate
its production timetable, general manager Juan Carlos
Montenegro told Industrial Minerals in an interview in Bolivia
in early March.
YLB has brought forward its targeted start date for
production of battery-grade lithium carbonate to the end of
2019, from its earlier target of 2020. It will ramp up
production to about 15,000-18,000 tonnes per year in 2020.
While the company has to date only started production at its
pilot plant, YLB has already reported strong demand from
"There are several companies trying to book all our lithium
pilot production, or to lock in multi-year contracts for all
our production once we start producing. But for now we will
keep with our spot sales and sell material to the international
market, due to the strong demand and historically high prices,"
To date, YLB has only achieved production of 300 tpy of
lithium carbonate (Li2CO3), technical and industrial grade, min
98.5-99.2%, from its pilot plant in Llipillipi in the Salar de
With the lithium industry seeking a benchmark market to
track prices, YLB is keeping a close eye on prices in China,
the world’s largest lithium consumer.
"Our lithium carbonate price reference is the Chinese
lithium carbonate battery-grade market domestic price,"
Montenegro told Industrial Minerals.
The Chinese domestic spot price for lithium carbonate min
99.5% battery grade was 150,000-155,000 yuan per tonne
($23.70-24.50 per kg) on March 22, according to Industrial
Minerals’ latest assessment. Although this was
down from the record high of $27 per kg in June 2016, prices
remain historically high compared with average levels of $7.70
per kg in October 2015.
Contract business for battery-grade lithium carbonate, cif
China, Japan & South Korea, averaged $18.50 per kg in
February, according to Industrial Minerals’
monthly market assessment, compared with an average of $15.50
per kg in October.
"There is a great demand for our lithium carbonate from
China, Europe and the United States. The latest bid we received
[in early March] in the spot market was $21.60 per kg ex-works
Bolivia, for 20 tonnes of our lithium carbonate, min 99-99.2%,
technical and industrial grade," Montenegro told Industrial
YLB sold 67 tonnes of lithium carbonate, min 98.5-99%,
technical and industrial grade, in 2017 but expects to sell
20-25 tonnes per month of lithium carbonate, min 99-99.2%,
technical and industrial grade, in 2018 in the spot market.
Even if prices retreat further from the highs of the past
two years, YLB would be able to produce material profitably, it
"In the case of lithium world market prices moving down to
$7 per kg, we would keep producing, because we estimate a
production cost of $3-4 per kg once fully operational,"
YLB currently exports its lithium carbonate via Chile, but
Montenegro told Industrial Minerals that the planned Bioceanic
railway, which will link the west and east coasts of South
America, could open up other exporting routes to destinations
such as Peru and Brazil.
The road to production
Lithium production from Bolivia is not a new concept,
however. The Bolivian national strategy to industrialize the
lithium resources and related products, and in particular at
the Salar de Uyuni, started in 2008.
A lack of experience or willingness to open up the
country’s resources to foreign companies has been
said to be the principal block to progress.
But Bolivia is now closer than ever to becoming a serious
lithium producer, Montenegro told Industrial Minerals, adding
that the state is playing an active role in the process.
"YLB is moving at a steady pace toward our production target
of around 43,000-45,000 tpy of lithium carbonate equivalent
[LCE] and to make Bolivia a relevant participant in the world
lithium market," he added.
The first and second stages of development of
YLB’s project will be funded by the state only,
while the third stage will see an external partner brought
"Our industrial-scale lithium carbonate battery-grade plant
is [expected to produce around] 15,000-18,000 tpy, and we are
now looking to choose from two external companies to build the
plant," Montenegro told Industrial Minerals.
China’s Beijing Maison Engineering and
Germany’s AFK ACI Group are vying to win
the contract to build the industrial scale lithium carbonate
plant, which will be run by Bolivians because the country
is determined to upskill its people.
"Once the plant is built, it will be operated by Bolivian
workers only, and will be ready to produce battery-grade
lithium carbonate," Montenegro added.
YLB lithium carbonate bags (Source: Industrial
The third phase of the YLB project will comprise the
production of Li-ion batteries and cathode materials at the two
battery and cathode pilot plants at La Palca in Bolivia.
The construction of a lithium hydroxide battery plant
through an external partner is also being planned. This partner
would take a 49% share of ownership while the state would
retain a 51% controlling share, YLB explained.
"YLB is currently looking for a partner to build a lithium
hydroxide production plant with a production capacity of 25,000
tpy in the Salar de Uyuni, in exchange for the lithium
carbonate residual brine resulting from the lithium carbonate
evaporation process at YLB operations," Montenegro told
This partner would require cutting-edge technology, and must
be willing to share this technology with YLB and to help sell
the lithium and battery compounds internationally in Europe or
Asia, he added.
Operations at the Salar de Uyuni
YLB has six lines of brine ponds in operation, each line
with eight ponds, in Llipillipi in the Salar de Uyuni. It
intends to expand this in 2018 to 12 lines of eight brine ponds
"We have 96 brine ponds already built in Uyuni, but we are
working on sealing the brine ponds to prevent brine leaks, to
install the tube networks and pumps, to finish some wells and
to extend electrification to all the network," Montenegro told
As it moves toward 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 more than three times the size of the Salar de
Atacama in Chile and almost 20 times the size of
Argentina’s Salar del Hombre Muerto.
One known challenge is that the magnesium-to-lithium ratio
in the brines extracted from the Salar de Uyuni is high when
compared with brines from other salars. Buyers look for very
low-to-zero magnesium content in lithium carbonate used in
batteries, because the process of separating out the magnesium
is difficult and costly.
The engineers operating the pilot plant in the Salar de
Uyuni have been working on getting the best out of the entire
production process, and reducing the magnesium content at the
lowest cost possible, an engineer at the pilot plant told
Industrial Minerals on a site visit in March.
*Battery grade lithium carbonate and hydroxide prices
are available in full in Industrial Minerals’
weekly Battery Price Report.