Bolivia brimming with lithium ambition
Aug 18, 2016
A recent report on Bolivia’s lithium by Myles McCormick, published by Industrial Minerals (UK), including comments by Heiner Marx from K-UTEC (Germany), Brian Jaskula from USGS (USA), Oscar Ballivian, Bolivian geologist, and Juan Carlos Zuleta, lithium economics analyst.
INDUSTRIAL MINERALS, UK
By MYLES MCCORMICK
Published: Thursday, 18 August 2016
The holder of the world’s largest lithium resource put a small amount of lithium carbonate on the market earlier this month, marking its first commercialisation of the product and garnering much local fanfare in the process. The state has big plans for the battery mineral, but a number of local experts remain sceptical.
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.
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 significantly delayed. 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.
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 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 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 told IM 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.
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.
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," said Zuleta.
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".
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