Bolivia Lithium Production

In 2016 Bolivia produced some 20 tons of lithium carbonate. Production is expected to triple in 2017. Planta Llipi lithium factory is still a pilot project. Yet Bolivia’s Lithium resources are estimated to be at the level of 9 million tons (USGS), highest in the world as per individual country and 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 resources respectively. The Bolivian government claims that it has 70% of the world’s lithium reserves and the most optimistic estimation claims there is 140 million tons of lithium in Salar de Uyuni.

Bolivian state miner Comibol manages the state’s interests in mining concessions and metallurgical and industrial plants through joint ventures, lease and/or service agreements with private entities. It is not a mine operator. Comibol currently has 18 projects related to exploration, prospecting and mine development, including the carrying out of lithium exploration work in the Uyuni salt flat. Located in the Bolivian high plains at 3,600 m above sea level, the salt flat has a total surface area of around 10,000 km2 and contains lithium, boron, magnesium, sodium, calcium and other minerals. In 2015, Comibol secured a US $622 mn loan from the Bolivian Central Bank. The funds will go toward building an industrial-scale lithium processing plant at its Uyuni salt flats, as part of the second stage of its national lithium development project. Comibol was formed in 1952 and is based in La Paz, Bolivia.[1]

A new bill authorized the government to form Empresa Pública Nacional Estratégica de Recursos Evaporíticos, which would replace state mining company Comibol’s lithium division known as GNRE.

The new company will have the power to sign JV contracts with local and international private companies to produce lithium batteries, lithium carbonate, chloride, sulfates and hydroxide, in addition to potassium chloride, sulfate and nitrates.

Bolivia has been trying to build US$900mn lithium project Salar de Uyuni for decades.

Comibol had its share of problems with mining operations. A state of emergency was declared in Huanuni – home to Comibol tin-mining concessions – after miners raided the properties and stole ore.

It closed its Karachipampa silver-lead smelter and El Mutún iron ore mine because of technical problems and low metals prices. In addition, Swiss trader Glencore last year also filed for arbitration against the Bolivian government for the expropriation of mining assets from 2007-12.

Private investment has plummeted in Bolivia since Morales, who lost a bid to extend his mandate last year, seized mining operations from companies including Jindal Steel, Glencore and South American Silver since first taking office in 2006.

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. 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. The sale of lithium technical grade, at 98% Li2CO3 was significant in that it marked the entry into the lithium game of the largest salar and the largest national lithium resource in the world.

The sale of the material also demonstrated 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.

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 was 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 Salt Technologies currently laying the groundwork.

Heiner Marx, CEO of K-UTEC, told Industrial Minerals 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).

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”.

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 Jaskula, lithium specialist at the USGS. 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,” Jaskula stated. 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 Muerto. 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 stated it would address each of them. 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.[2]

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.

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”.[3]

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, pledged to develop the country’s lithium industry as part of his 2009 re-election campaign. He has since made a series of pledges to invest a total of $995m by 2019. Chinese Linyi Dake Trade is already in the process of building a battery manufacturing plant in the country.

He has imposed strict requirements on foreign investment, demanding that the Bolivian government serve as an equal partner in any project processing and manufacturing products made from its lithium. The country seems to be warming to international investment, however. In November last year, Luis Alberto Echazu, head of Bolivia’s national lithium company Comibol, announced he was in discussions with an unnamed Canadian company about setting up a lithium battery plant in the country. In a report on its website, Comibol said Tesla expressed an interest in building a plant in Bolivia.

Industry observers suspect Pure Energy Minerals, a lithium supplier for Tesla, is the Canadian organisation in question. Sources have confirmed that Pure Energy Minerals is interested in the Bolivian lithium industry.[4]

Patrick Highsmith, chief executive of Pure Energy Minerals, says he cannot confirm or deny involvement because of Canadian stock market regulations. But in answer to concerns about the extraction processes used, he says his company is experimenting with a lithium extraction process developed in Israel and particularly suited to the challenges of the Salar de Uyuni.

The process involves passing the brine through nano filters and mixing it with a solvent to separate the lithium from the other minerals. Once the lithium is extracted, the brine is reinjected back into the ground.

“If we can get in there and tinker with the process a little, the team believes it has applicability to the Bolivian salar,” says Highsmith, who adds that it is less water-intensive than traditional methods of extracting lithium, employed by K-UTEC Ag Salt Technologies, that use the sun to evaporate the water from the brine, extracting the lithium from the leftovers.

FMC, my former employers, wished to develop Uyuni in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” claims Joe Lowry, head of the Global Lithium company and one of the world’s leading authorities on lithium. “But the governmental chaos and poor infrastructure were too much too deal with. Argentina ultimately got chosen. Thirty years later Bolivia still lacks both infrastructure and the sort of government investors can be comfortable with.”

According to the economist and leading Bolivian lithium analyst Juan Carlos Zuleta Calderon, it is essential for the government planners in La Paz to team up with experienced foreign companies, maybe even hire them to do the work while the Bolivians watch and learn and eventually take charge of the project. So far, the Chinese are the only ones Bolivians have allowed into their grand national project.

For the past 15 years, China has been gathering natural wealth exploitation concessions all over the developing world. Its impact on the environment has been no less ruinous than that of American and European corporations. Analysts the world over have long noted both China’s ideological nimbleness and the naked greed of the leaders of many Latin American and African countries.[5]

Robert Baylis, an analyst at the Roskill consultancy, said: “There’s potential there in terms of the resources but I would think it might be quite difficult to scale it up into anything large-scale without outside help. But it’s difficult for corporates in Bolivia because you can get your assets stripped off you.”

According to Parra approximately 90 per cent of the Lilipi’s plant’s lithium output was sold to China. A small amount was shipped o Sweden, and the rest was allocated to the Chinese-built lithium battery factory in Potosi in Bolivia. Parra was quick to add that this basic distribution ratio is not very likely to change.