On October 11, Bolivia’s Mining Minister Jose Pimentel stated that Bolivia plans to start production of lithium carbonate and potassium chloride for export this month, and expects a finalized product by January or February.[i] However, it is unlikely that Bolivia’s lithium carbonate will be available on the international market in the near future.
At an isolated pilot plant, Bolivian and international scientists have been working to develop a process to separate lithium from other minerals present in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flats. The unique climatic conditions and mineral concentration of the Salar present special challenges, and it is unclear whether the extraction process has been perfected. Between October and March the region receives significant rainfall, which could negatively affect evaporation and separation. This separation process can take up to 18 months, even without foreseeable rainy season delays.[ii] Furthermore, a successful trial run at the pilot plant would represent the first time lithium carbonate has been produced outside a laboratory in Bolivia.
The pilot plant, when fully functioning, should produce up to 480 metric tons of lithium carbonate per year, a small amount in comparison to regional competitor Chile’s annual production of 40,000 metric tons. With lithium carbonate prices at five dollars per kilogram (April 2010), the potential sale of 40 tons a month seems fiscally feasible for a pilot plant that cost the Bolivian government $5.7 million. Moreover, Bolivia and South Korea signed a deal for future investment in lithium in August 2010.
However, information about the Bolivian government’s economic strategy to get its lithium to market is not readily available. Aside from the challenges of locating the “best market,” Bolivia faces immediate infrastructure hurdles. The logistics of transporting the lithium to port in a region where roads and electricity are limited further complicate exploratory efforts.
Rebecca Hollender is lead author of “Bolivia and its Lithium; Can the ‘Gold of the 20th Century’ Help Lift a Nation out of Poverty,” (May 2010). The report is available in English and Spanish at: http://www.democracyctr.org/bolivia/investigations/lithio.htm.
[i] “Bolivia to Start Producing Lithium in October for Export, Minister Says.” Bloomberg. 12 October 2010.
[ii] Estimate based on Chile’s lithium carbonate production methods.